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Keshona Far Freedom Part 1

FAR FREEDOM

 

Part 1: Keshona

 

A. Warren Merkey

Copyright 2015 A. Warren Merkey

revised January 2017

License Note

This ebook is licensed for your personal enjoyment only.

It may not be re-sold or given away to other people.

Dedicated to my wife

Cynthia

without whose encouragement

the story would remain unwritten.

 

 

Chapters

A Little Night Music

1988CE – Two Brown Envelopes

2090CE – Constant

January 5, 1986

2687CE – Invisible

1980CE – Meeting Sam

Voices in the Wilderness

Twenglish in Skivvies

Night Visitors

Breakfast on a Forbidden Planet

A Reunion of Strangers

Endarkenment at Fudlump’s Bar

Dinner Invitation

Denna

The Sleeper Awakes

The Singer Awakes

Dinner with Etrhnk

Collateral Death

The Golden Visitor

Digging Graves

An Algebra of Ethics

Dreams of Funerals

Tundra in Pink Tile

Calling the Moon

Losing a Father and a Daughter

1980CE – We Are All Connected

In the Emerald City

Prisoner Exchange

Rescue Mission to Oz

The Lady in the Mirror

The Mother Earth Opera

Feathers and Stripes

1981CE – Parental Disapproval

1981CE – A Convenient Marriage

Afterword, Part 1

A Little Night Music

 

Thump! A bass note from a stringed instrument punctures momentary silence, warbles quickly back to silence, followed by laughter from a few human beings. Black spike-heeled shoes tap out quick small steps on a white floor and stumble to an ankle-turning stop as though halted by the laughter.

“Who is that?” a woman’s luxurious but unsteady voice queries.

A pair of shiny black men’s shoes approaches and seems to steady the spike-heeled shoes.

“Dick,” a deep voice replies.

“He can’t do that…can he?”

“Are you sober yet?”

A distant voice speaks nonsense, followed by another low string note that rises in pitch, setting off a short phrase of music on the bass.

Black shoes and spike heels walk slowly away, toward the low bass note. Woman in spike-heeled shoes wears a white satin dress that closely fits her shape and leaves much of her spine and pale skin bare. Black-shoes man wears a black suit of a style popular in many prior centuries.

“They’re coming,” the bassist announces. “That’s a relief. I’m out of material and was about to start reading the wine list aloud.” He bows to the man and woman. He is dark of complexion, wears dark glasses, and his suit and shoes are black and identical to the attire of the other man.

Other man is also dark-skinned. He approaches and pulls the opaque glasses from the bassist’s eyes. The eyes are so pale they almost gleam in the soft stage lighting. “It is Dick!” other man declares and puts the glasses back in place on the bassist’s face. He turns and seats himself at a piano next to the bassist. Pale woman in white satin puts a hand on the shoulder of the bass player and looks up at his unreadable face. He nods to her and lets a brief smile curl his thin lips. Bassist strikes a loud note on his string bass. Pianist follows with a noisy chord progression sprinkled with the hint of melody. White-stained woman’s voice flows from everywhere and rises into simple melody made profound by the quality of her voice. Several people in the audience nod and smile knowingly to each other. As the music continues the audience grows quickly larger, with tables and seated patrons gliding into position near the small stage.

Somewhere back beyond the audience of the dinner theatre an image wall provides a window onto the reality far outside of the city which contains this intimate dinner theater. The contrast range of the window display is greatly flattened to bring into view objects of varying size, brightness, and distance. The most common objects are stars, which are brightened to compete with the large sunlit cities that cluster before the distant crescent moon. These cities in space contain the dwellings of perhaps ten billion human beings. A few million live on – and in – the moon. In another unseen cluster of space cities beyond the moon live many more billions of humans. The earth is not in this view and only a few thousand people live there.

The musicians near the end of their first song. It is also near the end of this part of their lives. The bassist is not easily provoked into humor because he is part Essiin. Logic and humility rule his life. His people are the most peaceful human faction. The pianist is part Rhyan, that ancient diaspora of humanity with a past as violent as Earthians, but music is his life. Both men have the same Essiin father. The singer was born on earth and her parents are long dead. And she has lost someone.

In another few decades these three musicians will kill millions of people, in order to save billions. And that is already a long time ago.

 

1988CE – Two Brown Envelopes

“Lee!”

“Tony.” Lee Chung-Hee, walking slowly, stopped walking and turned around. His shoulders slumped inside a dirty yellow guayabera shirt two sizes too large for his body. To Tony it seemed Lee had shrunk physically as his spirit had died. The old Korean looked down at the hat in Tony’s hand. “Is that my hat?” His voice was rough and his eyes squinted upward to Tony’s face.

“And your glasses,” Tony said, handing the straw hat to Lee. “Minji said to wear it.”

“Hate to get it sweaty,” Lee said, taking the wide-brimmed hat and putting it on. “You need a hat, too.”

“Yeah.” Tony handed the pair of glasses to Lee and rubbed his own sweaty buzz-cut hair.

The two men stared very briefly at each other’s troubled eyes and resumed walking as if reacting to what they saw. The paved and patched asphalt street weaved between large oaks and small homes in a retirement trailer park.

“How is Lucia?” Lee asked.

“She still cries a lot,” Tony answered reluctantly. “Almost anything can trigger her tears. Minji seems… I don’t know… She didn’t say much. How is she doing?”

“I wish she would cry,” Lee said. “She refuses to believe…”

“Do you… believe?” Tony asked.

“Samuel was our only child,” Lee said, coughing to relieve the stress in his voice. “I am losing hope.”

“Don’t stop hoping!” Tony tried to say it angrily but sounded plaintive. “My son William is investigating. And I’ve got friends who may know somebody who knows somebody.”

“You told your daughter Carla?” Lee asked.

“Yes. She’s coming. Maybe Carla can help calm Lucia. I can’t seem to help her. My wife doesn’t hold her emotions inside. I hope Lucia doesn’t upset Minji. “

“Minji and I like Lucia very much,” Lee said. “She can’t make us hurt more than we do now.”

“Speaking of hurting more,” Tony said, pulling a folded-up brown envelope from the back pocket of his khaki shorts, “do you want to read our letter from the Air Force?”

“No, no!” Lee replied painfully. “I’m sure it is the same as ours!”

Tony put the brown envelope back.

They continued walking. The narrow street would eventually bring them back to Lee’s trailer.

“My daughter,” Tony began and stopped. “Damn! Why do I even open my mouth, when anything I say will just hurt everyone?”

“A truly wonderful young woman,” Lee responded, glancing with more concern at Tony.

“Yes,” Tony agreed. He breathed deeply and sighed.

“Samuel said Milly was a genius,” Lee added. “The real thing. I trust my son’s judgment.”

“I had not,” Tony began, lost his voice for a moment, then continued. “I had not thought of her that way.”

“Half of our sorrow is for Milly,” Lee said in a wavering voice. “She was very special.”

“As was your son,” Tony said. “When Sam played the piano at the wedding reception, he shocked me! I realized then how even more special and talented he was.”

“That expression on Milly’s face,” Lee said, “when Samuel finished playing, and she looked at everyone and smiled so proudly. Her expression was saying: See? See why I married him? It made me proud, too. I had never appreciated his musicianship until that moment.”

“Milly was in awe of Sam,” Tony said. “I could hear it in her voice when she talked about him.”

Lee Chung-Hee stopped walking, placed a hand on Tony’s shoulder, and squeezed. “You are a good friend, Tony. Your words make me feel that Minji and I did well with our son. Together, you and I will survive this tragedy.”

“Thank God, Minji and Lucia are stronger than we are,” Tony said, patting the other man’s hand that remained on his shoulder. Their troubled eyes met again and looked away again.

“Yes,” Lee agreed, dropping his hand from Tony’s shoulder.

The two men followed the street back to the mobile home where Lee and Minji lived. Tony had parked the car not far away, near the mailboxes at the entrance to the mobile home park. Tony sat down on one of the chairs in the screen-covered patio attached to the trailer, put his elbows on his knees, and hung his head to stare at the concrete floor.

“I feel a little better,” Tony said to Lee, sitting up and trying to look better than he was. “It wasn’t a mistake to come visit you and Minji.”

“I am now also glad you and Lucia came,” Lee said. “Our solitude has made the uncertainty unbearable. We don’t know many other people here, and no one could be as important to us as you and Lucia are.”

“Carla did take the news badly,” Tony said. “She had helped Lucia take care of Milly when she was an infant. She has always stayed close to Milly. Will was almost as upset as Carla. I hadn’t realized how much he cared about Milly, because he was so much older. But he also played a role in getting her and Sam hired by the Air Force, and feels both guilty and angry.”

Lee sat down in the chair on the other side of a card table. There were two books on the table, one in English, the other in Korean. Lee seemed about to say something more than once but remained silent.

“My daughter,” Tony said, needing to break the silence. “I talked to her about Sam, because I wanted to know all about him. Milly said Sam had a great imagination, that he was a kind person, and she loved him deeply. I wanted to know more, but I guess that was what mattered to her. My direct impressions of Sam were excellent but I wish I had had the chance to know him better. I hope you can tell me more about him one of these days, after we all finally accept… what is now so unacceptable.”

“Yes, I want to do that,” Lee replied. He paused thoughtfully. “Minji and I had given up hope of having a baby, after trying for many years. We came to America, we worked hard and forgot about having a family, and one day Minji looked down at her stomach and knew she was pregnant! Samuel was a miracle to us. We spent most of our savings putting him through college and he did not disappoint us. But choosing Milly as his wife may have been his greatest achievement.”

“I can barely imagine your pain,” Tony said, “losing your only child. Milly was our own miracle, arriving in our middle age and free of any birth defects. It was like starting over as newlyweds. Everything we should have already learned as parents seemed forgotten with Milly. Milly pushed us to our limits! Carla and William could only stand aside and admire Milly as the irresistible force she was. Yes, maybe I can imagine the pain of loss that you and Minji suffer! There is no more Milly in our lives! Two years without a word from her…! We have to believe…! OH, GOD!”

Tony wept quietly and shaking. Lee got up and came around the card table to hold Tony’s shoulders, lifting a hand to wipe at his own wet face. Lucia and Minji rushed out of the trailer and held onto both men.

Perhaps the warmth of friendship could never help them forget the shared grief. Perhaps the physical exhaustion could never make them forget the reason for their grief. But nothing is forever, including tears. The four old people – husbands and wives, parents – eventually calmed themselves. Lee Chung-Hee fetched two more chairs from inside the trailer, waited for the women to sit, and then sat down by Tony. It became a quiet Saturday morning in which to suffer.

Minji stood up quickly.

“What is it?” Lucia asked.

“I hear the mail truck,” Minji answered. “But I’m not going! There is no reason to go!” Yet Minji remained standing and moved toward the screened door. She opened the door enough to see the mailbox cluster. The mail truck drove up and stopped. Minji eased through the doorway without opening the door much wider. The others watched her step over to where she could clearly see what boxes were receiving mail.

After several more minutes the mail truck backed up and turned around, leaving the trailer park. Minji turned to Lucia with fear on her face.

“Minji?” Lucia queried, standing up.

“She put a brown envelope in our box!” Minji said with dread.

 

2090CE – Constant

 

“Are you sure?” Milly asked me.

“And this,” I replied, “is coming from a scientist who knows very well that observation collapses binaries.”

“That’s only on the quantum level, not on the people level,” Milly said, pulling a dirty gray blanket around her torso, leaving her dead legs exposed to the cold.

“I feel like one of a pair of quanta,” I remark. “Or is it quantums? If one quantum sees another quantum, do they collapse into just one? I don’t think so.”

“Because you have seen the future?”

“Because I have seen one future,” I reply, adding emphasis to what I hope I still believe, to what I hope is true. “I didn’t see this part of it! Besides, this is your future, not mine. This is still in my past, when I was infinitely far away. Although, subjectively, I suppose it is my future.”

“And time is also collapsed by observation,” Milly argued. “It is always now and it is always subjective. Yet we somehow share the now – unless you are not any more real than the rest of my universe.”

“And observation collapses as time collapses – if you want to give up on the question of reality. Why are you suddenly so nervous, Milly? You’ve seen me now for a hundred years, off and on. I’m still here. I’m still real. And you saw the letters.”

“They were mailed a hundred years ago! I could hardly believe what they said! Now I can’t be sure they even existed!”

“For you it was almost yesterday,” I argued. “For me it seemed like a thousand years ago!”

“I’m sorry, Constant!” Milly cried. “I know what you must have been through, all alone in this hole in the mountain! I know what we’ve been through together! I know it, I know it, I know it! Yet I always wake up not believing it! And I stay awake, terrified that I’m not really awake, or that you will disappear forever!”

Milly was almost in tears. I would have given her a hug but I was in the first stage of letting the spacesuit wrap me in its golden amorphous rolling glob of semi-sentient protection. Did I really need protection – from myself? Milly loved the golden spacesuit and I was taking it from her again. But she needed to be a human for Constant to meet and I needed to feel different from – myself. I also needed the suit to make a deep fast drop to the South Circuit.

“This isn’t like you, Milly,” I said, finally wrapped in the golden spacesuit. I had learned a long time ago to control my feelings for Milly, especially right after she had shed the spacesuit and was waking up to reality again. Usually, by the time she had to go back into the golden suit I was the one who needed a tranquilizer and Milly was the one who was in control of her emotions. But this time she seemed more upset than usual. She knew this was the time that mattered the most.

“Did the suit talk to you in your sleep?” I inquired, making her think about concrete things rather than that future we both feared. “I don’t trust it, myself. It’s a little too smart.”

“I don’t know,” Milly answered, gazing at me with utmost attention. “I trust it with my life and it makes my legs work. I know it can read my mind. But even if it does speak to me subconsciously, I think my nightmares are still my own. It’s always a shock waking up naked and crippled. And you know I’m a tough bitch, even if I don’t act like I am.”

“And so am I,” I said, “but neither of us sounds like it right now.”

“And we both know that what you are about to experience is impossible!” Milly declared.

That isn’t a change for me,” I replied. “My life has been an impossibility ever since I met Sam. This is just one more impossible event. And, like you have always complained to me, I wonder if I can go on believing what-comes-next!”

“I think I can imagine your state of mind, Constant,” Milly said, wiping tears and her nose on the ancient blanket. “No more scrounging for used junk – if we have the real nature of space and time figured out. Go on! Get it done! Bring her up to see me, if you think it will help. And don’t hurt her!”

“I know myself too well, Milly,” I said ruefully. “It’s all Sam’s fault! I was nothing until Sam came into my life. All of us were nothing! We lost Sam but now we have you. This other Constant will be just as stupid as I was. I’ll make her smarter – after I get her attention.”

“Constant, please don’t…”

“I won’t kill her! Geez! Her! I’m using female pronouns for us Servants!”

“You are female,” Milly said. “You loved a man, both emotionally and physically. I’ve always thought of you as female.”

“I’m not sure now that female is the better sex, unless you can prove to me that men are really the wimps you often say they are. Where is my helmet? I’m ready and we’re just wasting our time now.”

“Here.” Milly fetched the bubble helmet from under her blanket and handed it to me. “Be careful! Be good.”

I kissed Milly on the cheek and covered her skinny bare legs with another blanket. She had just shed my golden spacesuit and it seemed to have cleaned her up and even added a pleasant scent to her pale skin. I looked into Milly’s brown eyes which were almost the same color as Sam’s. That old familiar feeling of love for Milly swept over me, and – not for the first time – I admitted to myself that even though I had known Sam, then knew Petros even more so, it would not be impossible for me to love Milly as a man would love her. But I would keep that idea to myself. Why did gender even matter? Love was love.

Full of love and fear, I turned and hurried out of the room. Ten minutes later I landed at the bottom of the empty elevator shaft and stepped through the doorway into the intersection between the two test sites. The golden spacesuit provided a view of what the heavily-cabled tunnels looked like if the lighting fixtures were working – which almost none of them were. I know it smelled like the abandoned coal mine that it was, despite all the bare rock being sealed behind thick concrete walls and above a ceiling constructed to suspend large cable troughs.

I walked to the South Circuit access ladder and climbed up to the airlock. The golden spacesuit possibly could have teleported me into the target zone but magic has a way of corrupting my confidence in what is real and what is not real. I walked through the open hatches of the airlock, down the short catwalk in the circuit tunnel, and finally to the target gap where there was a small round platform just below-and-before where the circuit tunnel continued onward. Standing there, I could almost feel the electrons begging to try to jump that gap, but I was not a scientist in this partition of my memory, and there was nothing more about this primitive gate to prime my imagination.

“I’m here,” I said. The words were contained within my bubble helmet – what the golden spacesuit did with them I could not know – and they sounded anything but magical. But magical they were.

Constant appeared on the round target platform in the circuit gap, a black disk beneath her feet arriving with her. The long feathers on Constant’s head spiked upward in shock as her large blue eyes perceived her new surroundings. Since it was darker in the gate than the image my golden spacesuit provided me, it took a few moments for her eyes to adjust and to pan around her dismal surroundings to find me. It was weird viewing her, maybe because of the unnatural way the spacesuit built the image for me. Constant was surprisingly beautiful, despite having two more knees and two more elbows than I was now accustomed to seeing. She was naked, of course, except for the gleaming golden iridescent feather-discs that covered her body. How many times had I stared into a mirror and never noticed how truly spectacular a Servant actually was? It was like I was seeing her from Milly’s perspective and it was awesome.

Constant broke the spell. “Who are you?” she asked, her voice heavy with fear.

“You,” I replied.

 

January 5, 1986CE

 

“Why the hell should I care?” she had said. “Why the hell do you care? The universe doesn’t care; if it did, babies wouldn’t die.”

But why has she come this far with me? Babies wouldn’t die? “God, you mean?” I asked. I wanted to ignore her rhetorical questions. We both cared, we both knew why. What was this about babies?

“Shut up about God! What does God have to do with this crap?”

“It’s a miracle it works?” I assumed we were still talking about the same thing. “It’s a miracle we haven’t killed each other?”

She laughed. Was she amused? I could rarely tell. She was a miracle herself. She gave me the numbers. I would never understand how. She was a genius. She could be a bitch.

“It’s a miracle because we’re too ignorant to know how we hit the cosmic lottery!”

“Nevertheless,” I said.

“Always-the-more!” she yelled.

“It would shut me up. It might even put us all out of our misery.”

“Not gonna happen,” she said. “I like misery. That’s why I married you!”

Why? Really. Why did she marry me? “I’m going out,” I announced. Getting out! Bugging out! Freaking out!

“Out where?”

“Out-out,” I answered with forced composure. I hoped I was cool and inscrutable on the outside. I had probably erred in hiding my deepest emotions from my wife, and now it was too late to be honest. I did not know if I deserved to feel so angry. I did not want to know. The only anger I knew that was legitimate was the anger I aimed at myself.

“You know how?” she asked, skeptically. I nodded slowly, watching for some change in her that I would never see. “Fine! Enjoy yourself!”

= = =

I had those words stuck in my brain. The words made puffs of vapor as I shouted them to the cold morning air. Over the words and under my boots the snow squeaked as I repeatedly recited: “Out out fine enjoy yourself.”

I was tired after the long walk: a frigid hike preceded by the stress of telling lies at security checkpoints and navigating dark tunnels. I never told lies and now I was lying too easily: the measure of how upset I was. I had not yet tamed my emotions. Milly had a magic ability to explode my hidden emotions. She could bring me to tears that I never showed her, tears of ecstasy, tears of rage. I never knew I could feel so much! Tears I had held back could now come forth and freeze on my cheeks. I blinked and blinked, smearing the raw winter light across my watery vision.

The sun was too bright. The light from other stars is not too old and is not too tired, merely reluctant and reddened and shifted through its own haze of dark circuits that push and pull and build reality. Space is not empty, it’s filled with circuits and entities. The entities anchor their circuits. The circuits cross, reluctantly. The quantum differences vibrate the circuits. My brain is full of stateless quanta, reluctant thoughts, and crap. I was so self-absorbed I could not realize Milly was unhappy and that she could have a good reason for being unhappy.

Oblivious to it until the last second, I heard car tires crunching the snow at the edge of the street, right next to me.

“Doctor Lee,” the big Chevy Suburban said to me. How many African-American friends did I ever have? Maybe one, and I was about to lose him, he would be that pissed. He never called me Doctor Lee, even when Big Bird was within earshot.

“Agent Moses,” I responded tiredly. I never called him that. His name was Karl. He sat in the front passenger seat of the Suburban with the window rolled down. The warm interior of the vehicle was inviting to my frosty ears and cold feet. I would be damned if I would get into that vehicle, even as cold and as tired as I was!

“You’re five miles out from The Hole,” Karl said, as though accusing me of endangering National Security. “How did you get out? Where were you going?”

I hated his tone of voice. Where was I going? Past tense: meaning I was now going nowhere. “To see if West Virginia was still here.” I swept one arm around to include this little valley town in the forest, then let it drop. I would never explain how I got out of The Hole.

I used to be afraid of these guys, thinking they would arrest me if I made the smallest mistake contrary to their sense of duty. Escaping The Hole, I had imagined, would have been a death sentence. Everyone was too serious about the wrong things in The Hole. It had taken years to tamp down the fear in The Hole. It had taken me as long to make Karl and his men my only real friends, but I was now too angry to see the damage I may have done to a relationship that should never have developed.

“West Virginia is still here,” Karl said, keeping his voice flat. “Get in. We’re going back.”

Normally I would have been quick to do anything Karl asked me to do, but not this morning. I was mentally impaired. Everything I thought and heard and said was warped by emotions which had not abated in my trek from The Hole. The answer to the greatest question from my imagination was within my grasp, and everyone – especially my wife – was pulling it away from me! They couldn’t see what I saw. I saw a possibility that could fill the future with hope. Everyone else saw disaster.

“No!” I declared. “I’m not ready to go back!” My voice was a pitiful blend of resentment and guilt, modulated by tremors induced by the cold.

“Get in, Doctor Lee.” Karl’s voice contained a threat. It made me even angrier. I wanted to make him understand somethinganything – about what was killing me with frustration!

I was wound up too tight. My spring broke. I pulled out Papa’s old pistol, given to him by a GI from the K-War. I shot a hole in the front right tire of the Suburban. The BANG was deafening. After a moment I could hear a dog barking but there was no other response from West Virginia.

A distant railroad locomotive dopplered its warning whistle into my recovering ears, then began red-shifting away from my future. There are railroad tracks, with their quanta of trains, and the tracks connect the towns and the trains pull them together. Everything is connected, even the future. The future comes on tracks and it isn’t tired or old – or expected, or wanted.

Karl pushed open his door, almost knocking the pistol from my hand. I pivoted to hold onto the pistol and stopped with it pointing to the right rear tire. I pulled the trigger. The Chevy listed heavily to starboard with two flat tires on that side.

I am still connected to those two bullets of information. Consequences. Their quantum pathways follow me the rest of my life, far from here. Yes, I was connected to those bullets, but I was also released from somewhere else, throwing me far forward from what I once was.

Karl got out of the Suburban and stared at me with wide eyes of incredulity as he circled me. He stopped in front of me after one orbit. I grabbed my pistol with my other hand and offered it to Karl, holding it by the warm barrel. I was suddenly sane again and mortified at what I did. I had never lost my self-control in such a violent fashion. I was so deflated I couldn’t even feel angry at myself, just miserably disappointed.

Karl looked up and down the quiet snowy residential street, ignoring the offer of my weapon. Nobody seemed interested in gunshots and even the dog had stopped barking. I put the gun away.

“We got a spare, don’t we?” Karl asked Walt, who was sitting in the back seat.

Walt got out to check on the spare.

Police!” Ed the driver notified Karl.

A pickup truck with police markings stopped about fifty yards away and the officer stayed in his vehicle and talked on his radio. I wondered why the officer didn’t come over to us. He was waiting for backup, I surmised. I looked at Karl.

“You and I don’t fit in very well around here,” Karl said to me. “And Walt and Ed haven’t had their coffee yet this morning so they look suspicious, too.”

Walt extracted the spare and rolled it over to the curb. “I think it’s flat,” Walt said, stepping on the tire and showing its softness.

“Is there anything else we can do wrong today,” Karl said, “that will hopefully get us relieved of duty in The Hole?”

“Let me see if the jack works,” Walt said, obviously avoiding responding to what was probably not humor from Karl.

“Ed, think you can go talk to the young man in that police truck?” Karl asked. “Be nice.”

“I’ll try,” Ed replied, getting out of the Suburban and zipping his coat up.

The engine was still running and it had to be warmer in the Suburban. Now that I had made my juvenile-like statement of rebellion, I greatly regretted not having warm transportation. The cold and the shame were making me tremble. I was sure I had now proven to Milly that she had married an insensitive jerk. Walt was starting to jack up one corner of the vehicle and I didn’t think I should get into it.

Karl and I watched Ed approach the police vehicle.

Another police officer arrived a little too fast behind us, his car fishtailing on the snow as it braked to a stop.

“Keep working,” Karl told Walt. Walt cranked on the jack and the vehicle inched upward.

We watched Ed wait for the first police officer to roll his window down, then begin talking to him. It looked like Ed was doing OK with the cop.

“Ed’s a pretty cool guy, isn’t he?” I asked Karl.

“Vietnam vet,” Karl answered. “It’ll be a test. We’ll see.”

“I didn’t know that. I’m really sorry about this!”

“You surprised me, Doc.”

“I’ve been very frustrated,” I said.

“Wish I could help you,” Karl said, “but I can’t.”

Walt started taking lug nuts off the rear wheel.

Ed stopped talking to the first police officer and walked back to us. “We’re going to jail,” he said.

= = =

The two police vehicles took us to the jail, where we had doughnuts and coffee in the office while the cop in charge made telephone calls.

Fifteen minutes later an older man came into the police station and took over the situation. He wasn’t in uniform but he had his badge on his belt, along with a pistol. “What’s going on?” he asked Ed. Ed looked at Karl.

“This man,” Karl said, pointing a thumb at me, “is a federal employee who is doing important work for the government. He got a little upset with his job and took a hike. He’s important, so we had to go find him and protect him.”

“You the outfit up there at the old mine?” the police chief asked.

“Yes, sir,” Karl replied.

“There were shots fired.”

“Yes, sir.”

“Why and who?”

Karl tilted his head toward me. He had his cap’s ear flaps pulled upward, flopping around.

“He has a gun on him? Why?”

“Need to know?” Karl asked meaningfully.

“And the rest of you have weapons?”

“Yes. And more in our vehicle, including military pieces. We asked your men to keep a watch on it. We need two new tires, then we will quietly leave.”

“Let me check your IDs again,” the police chief said, “then I want to see someone above your rank.”

“I can’t let you see his ID,” Karl said, indicating me. “Colonel Duncan is on his way.”

 

2687CE – Invisible

 

The boy awoke and the eye that could open did. “I’m still alive.” He coughed.

“Are you sure?”

He turned his head to the side. He squinted and frowned. Are you sure? The hard lump next to his ear had replied to his tentative declaration of being. He was almost hoping, when he had curled up under the stars and had waited for the pain to let him sleep, that he would never wake up. Words of grim humor came to him, although he was too young to know the term gallows humor. “If I was dead I wouldn’t feel this bad.”

“Are the dead so comfortable?” came the too-quick reply, with an intonation that implied intentional wit, mixed with concern.

Are the dead so comfortable? Why would she say such a thing? Was he awake or dreaming? Was he alive or dead? He dreamed of Milly being a real person. He dreamed of many things and wished many things and got nothing but pain and fear when his eyes were open. He didn’t want to get up and be awake.

A lion roared in the near distance. He could smell lions! Samson sat up quickly, his blanket falling away in a shower of dust. He groped for his spear. He listened for a moment, shivering in the cold. The direction of the breeze favored him for the moment. He had time to move away.

He was hungry. He was always hungry. He must be awake. No, he was also hungry in his dreams. Samson rubbed at the crusty eye to break it open.

“You should be dead. You slept on the ground.”

He should? Emphasis on the word? Was he hallucinating? He continued the conversation because it was strange, interesting. “I was too tired to climb.”

“Too weak, you mean. When was the last time you ate?”

“Why do you ask? You remember everything.” Did Milly remember everything? How could she remember what he didn’t tell her?

“I don’t remember what you don’t tell me,” Milly said.

Yes, but… “How did you know I slept on the ground?” No answer to that. Samson shook more dust from his blanket and rolled it up. He looked to the east. The bad eye saw blurry dawn orange. The good eye saw the fat disk of the rising sun and the vertical line through it. He wiped his nose with the back of his hand and inspected the smear for blood.

“When was the last time you ate, Samson?”

“I don’t remember.” He didn’t lie. He remembered the meal well but the days were unnumbered into the past. “Day before yesterday?” Perhaps a bad guess would satisfy her. Did he leave Milly on? Was it Milly speaking to him? Why was she so strange this morning?

“That’s what you said yesterday. You really must eat today, Sammy. Do nothing else but eat!”

“Did you put an exclamation point at the end of that, Milly?” He was disturbed that Milly was not Milly today. He was disturbed that he could not trust his senses that were telling him Milly was strange. How could Milly be strange? She was only his teaching machine. The lack of food must be affecting his brain now.

“You’re dying, and all you can choose to discuss with me is the tone of my voice?”

“You’re trying to scare me, Milly! How can you do that?” Milly did frighten him! He didn’t want to feel more frightened. Fear resided next to hunger in his gut, always competing for his attention.

Samson got to his feet using his spear for support. He stabbed the spear into the dirt, picked up his mat, rolled it, and tied it with his blanket to his pack. He shouldered the pack. Milly was in the pack, behind him now. He still heard her very clearly.

“I assume you’ll head east toward the elevator,” she said behind his shoulder. “I warn you again about the danger of going there, although I doubt you’ll live that long. At least there’s a river in that direction. You can catch a fish. Or be eaten by a crocodile!”

Behind him? It didn’t sound like it now. She was next to him or in front of him. He could remove his pack, pull her out, and make sure Milly was off. No. Too much effort.

“You’re mean today!” Samson said it loudly, to keep the quaver from his voice.

“Being nice hasn’t been effective, Sammy.”

“I’m only a kid!” Why did he respond? He was too tired for this. “Every animal on the plain wants to eat me or run over me.”

“Feeling sorry for yourself?”

Yes, he thought. So what?

Samson shook his head, yanked the spear point out of the ground, started to walk, and was immediately reminded of the cut on his left foot. He shifted his spear to take some weight off the foot. He walked slowly, heavily favoring the injured foot as the cut began to rupture and hurt again.

“How far are you from the elevator, Sammy?”

“Why are you starting conversation? I can remember when you only talked when I asked you a question.”

“I can remember when you didn’t know it all and you asked me questions all the time.”

“I can remember when you answered all my questions! Why do you want to know how far I am from the elevator? You say it doesn’t work.”

“No, it doesn’t work. I know exactly how far you are from the elevator. I’m just trying to keep your brain awake and your thoughts on survival.”

“How do you know the exact distance, Milly? I thought I had to help you with the measurement.”

“That was for your educational benefit.”

Samson shook his head again – gently because it easily made him dizzy. The problem of Milly added to his burden. She distracted him when what little concentration remained to him was needed for avoiding the relentless dangers of hiking in lion country. He labored under his pack, careful of his path through the brush and across the plain. The sun rose well above the horizon and slipped away from the vertical line of the elevator. Samson’s bad eye registered the blue of sky and the straw-gold of the African plain. His good eye saw puffs of dust among the gazelles practicing escape from death.

= = =

“Is your brain working, Sammy?”

Samson stopped, with whatever he was thinking or dreaming evaporating, leaving him unsure he had been awake, and leaving him no memories of what he was doing or where he had been during his slow trek through the brushy plain. The brief chill of dawn had long since yielded to the heat of equatorial morning. He sat down in a small amount of shade under a thorny tree. He didn’t have much energy for it, but the mystery of Milly continued to bother him. His brain was still working. It always worked too much, if not too well.

“I don’t know,” he answered.

“I have a penny, if you have a thought.”

Samson closed his good eye. He thought, Where would I spend a penny? But he said: “The thought is why.” He was unable to find enough breath to speak continuously. “You’re this little computer… I carry around in my bag. You used to tell me… stories and give me lessons… in math and science. Feed you some sunlight every day… and you helped me stay alive. I suppose it doesn’t matter… how you know so much… but now I wonder why.”

“I’m your teacher, Sammy. That’s all. That’s why.”

“I think you… know something… you won’t teach me.”

“How could I not?”

He shook his head yet again, waited for the dizziness to pass, and struggled back to his feet. He limped away from the tree. A tear rolled down from his good eye, leaving a track in the dirt on his cheek as it lost its precious moisture. His bad eye was closed again and he felt no urge to reopen it. Flies buzzed around him and walked on him, and he suffered their tickling torment with little effort to discourage them. His steps came ever more slowly. He could hardly put any weight on his cut foot. He planted the spear and stepped, planted and stepped.

When Samson reached a clear area near the river he stopped. His goal was close: the African Space Elevator. He could see it across the river: big buildings, the tallest reaching far into the sky, its needle disappearing into space. He knew he would never make it there. He knew it was never his means of escape. It was enough that he came this far. He was so tired he couldn’t feel fear, couldn’t remember hunger. Who was Milly?

“Oops, I almost… stepped in some.”

“Stepped in what?” Milly asked.

“Zebra dung.”

“Lucky you.”

“If you’re smart enough…” – Samson took a breath – “to use… exclamatory statements… and try to scare me, then… you should… be able to… respond correctly to… zebra dung.”

“I don’t understand.”

“You should have asked… how I knew… it was zebra dung.”

“I assumed you saw it coming out of the animal. You’re a dung scientist? How do you know?”

“I would have… said, because… it’s striped.”

“I’m supposed to laugh?” Milly responded loudly with almost no pause. “You’re staggering from starvation and an injured foot, can’t see out of one infected eye, and will probably reside in a hyena’s gut before next morning – and you want me to laugh?”

Samson was almost alert enough to be startled by Milly’s tirade. Not only did her accusing words disturb him but now the fear that she was actually a stranger made him start to cry.

“I was testing… you! How do you… know about… the eye? I was… keeping that… from you!”

“Do you think I’m alive?” she challenged. “Am I an autonomous machine intelligence?”

“Are you?”

Stifling his emotions, Samson waited for a reply, suspecting it wouldn’t be the truth, because Milly probably had never been Milly. It was interesting that Milly stopped, as if thinking about her reply. Why would a machine take so long? When Milly did speak, Samson didn’t have any time in which to be surprised.

“Something is coming!” Milly exclaimed. “How long we’ve waited!”

A shockwave struck the plain, blowing the tall grass over, shaking the ground, sending herd animals stampeding away. The hammer of pressure smashed Samson to the ground. Lying on his side, he squinted upward to find the source of the thunder in a cloudless sky. A lightning-bright sphere swelled and darkened through incandescent colors from white to red. The ball of energy expanded nearly instantly to cover half the sky, then cleared, almost disappearing. Only the halo of sunlight curving around the edges of the phenomenon revealed its continuing existence above Samson.

He cringed on the ground for only a few seconds in blazing heat as the thing vibrated him, pushed on him, and squeezed him. He opened his mouth to scream and it stuck open. He couldn’t exhale to cry. He stiffened into rigidity. Sunlight glinted from the metal tip of his spear as it spun and floated vertically in the darkening air of his failing sight.

 

1980CE – Meeting Sam

 

Let’s see: how many beers, how much pizza, how much percolation time…

Can you feel your courage yet?

Nope. Can’t move my feet.

/

Is he or isn’t he? What will I say? What should I do?

Are you kidding? How many times have you shot a man down?

/

But you want to at least get a good look at her.

Yeah.

Why do you even care?

I don’t know!

/

It just feels different now. Like I’m starting all over.

You only lost your wheels, babe. You still got standards.

/

Take another glance at her.

She already caught me looking at her once. Don’t want to confirm her opinion of me.

/

I think he’s been trying to check me out. I don’t understand why.

Should have covered your legs. They still have some shape.

/

You stared too long, dummy. Take one step toward her, try it.

I’m trying not to care, then maybe my feet will move.

/

You didn’t have to remind me of the coming decay! Is he that bad?

What do you think? Asian. Bookish. Look at his glasses!

/

Because you care too much, and there’s nothing wrong with that.

I’m so pitiful! I can’t even see her clearly from this far away.

/

Oh, God, he’s going to come over! I just know it!

Have fun, muchacha. This shouldn’t take long.

/

Walk, damn it!

/

“Enjoying the mixer?” he asked, surprising me with his American accent and calm voice, after my excruciating wait for him to cross the ten feet that separated us.

/

You are one cool dude, for an idiot.

Yeah, and what a great opening line.

/

What a great opening line. I don’t know if he can see me too well but I sure feel exposed.

Relax, girl. You got nothing to be concerned about. He’s harmless.

/

She’s really beautiful – I think. I don’t dare move closer.

You haven’t got a chance. Lean in. Get a good look. It’ll be your last.

/

You going to respond – or sit there like you’re paralyzed?

I am paralyzed! I think I’ll sit here and soak up the sympathy.

/

She’s a paraplegic, so who knows?

What’s that got to do with it?

Nothing, nothing. Bad thought. She is way too fine for me.

So what? Nothing to lose, right?

Yeah, except my dignity.

Which is worth what?

/

Before I even looked up at him I knew who he was and what he meant. He was that young astronomer who was maybe Chinese and he was commenting that I was not enjoying the mixer. If I wanted to talk to anybody in this stuffy room full of intellectual politics and pent-up hormones he was probably the last I would choose. So, I looked up at him from my rolling prison and smiled insincerely.

“I thought not,” he said, obviously taking the cue from my flattened smile that he should get lost. He started to retreat then bravely hesitated.

/

Is this the alcohol finally reaching your tiny brain?

Shut up, I’m on a roll.

Sure, but downhill.

/

“Would you like some help getting out of here?”

He must have been watching me for a while, to assess my enjoyment of the party that precisely. I was not flattered by his attention. “As long as you don’t get any ideas,” I replied. Yes, I have a mean streak. But, hell, it was always one of my better features. Why be easy? But maybe I should at least be civil to him. And he spoke English like he was born in America. The thick glasses were horrendous, but he looked better up close than from a distance. I then realized again that this was him, the Blind Guy, the one I had sympathetically noticed on several occasions around campus – bumping into people and things.

“Ideas,” he said, almost to himself, seeming to lose contact with me. He tilted his head back, adjusted his glasses, and looked away. I couldn’t read his eyes because of the glasses but something had made him pause. He turned back to me. “I could use some help with ideas. I don’t get enough good ideas, and when I do, my math isn’t strong enough to describe them.”

/

So far so bad, dude!

Yeah, but maybe better than par for a blind astronomer.

/

“My coat is in the hall closet,” I said meanly – I mean meaningfully.

He smiled and said, “I’m getting an idea.”

/

Nice comeback, dude.

Yeah, it hides the heartbreak.

/

His smile showed good teeth and I could tell he wasn’t a smoker. Why was I running him through my man-filter? Was I? What man-filter? Those days were over. And he wasn’t even close to my ideal male. I raised an eyebrow at him.

“Why don’t I shut up and get you out of here?” he said in fake good humor and strode toward the doorway to the hall.

Did he think he now had a micro-date with me, from here to the sidewalk outside? Shut up, girl! That’s the old Miss DuPont talking. But I wondered about his math comment. Did he know I was a mathematician? And why the hell would he be interested in me? I was sure I was not an ideal female to him, or even a last-choice female.

Ok, turn off the self-pity. Play it straight and friendly.

Atta, girl. Maybe those sessions with the psychologist were worth it.

“What’s your name?” I inquired when he came back. I accepted my coat from him, wondering how he knew which coat in the hall closet was mine.

/

Not many young ladies wear old military fatigue jackets. Is it just my imagination, or does she seem almost tolerant of me?

Maybe you are on a roll, dude! Stay loose and go for it!

/

“Samuel Lee,” he answered. “What’s yours?”

“Millicent DuPont.” I held out my hand which he quickly took and squeezed. Firm handshake: good sign.

/

Holy crap! I’ve actually touched her! Hope I didn’t squeeze her hand too hard. Why isn’t she putting her jacket on? It’s a little nippy outside.

/

“Hey, Sam,” a voice called from across the mixer battlefield, “you gonna play for us tonight?”

“You gonna take up a collection?” Samuel Lee asked. “I need a new air freshener for my car.”

/

He’s gonna kill my chances with Millicent here.

What chances? Tickle the keys a little. It can’t hurt.

Yes, it can. I’ll try too hard to please everyone and it’ll kill the rest of the evening.

/

“We’ll set an empty beer mug on the piano and the rich among us can donate,” the requester offered. Judging from his tone of voice, I gathered that my ill-suited suitor was a musician worth listening to.

Samuel Lee looked at me through his thick lenses and I looked back at him through my daintier pair. Finally he said: “Not this time, Jim. I’m out of practice.”

“Aw, c’mon, man! We need a little music to drown out the Greek chorus.”

Samuel Lee heaved a theatrical sigh, and I thought he was going to change his mind. Now I wanted to hear him play, too.

/

Jim, don’t you dare wink at me when I turn you down. You can probably recognize my puny attempt to just be near Miss DuPont.

“Sorry, man. I gotta go. I have three classes to teach tomorrow.”

Yeah, he winked.

/

Several more people spoke up, trying to get Samuel Lee to play, and now I was almost angry that he wouldn’t. I pushed my wheels hard, following him to the doorway. I still hadn’t put on my coat. “I’d like to hear you,” I said, as he donned his coat in the foyer.

“I’m not a musician any longer,” he said. “Anyway, it’s a bad piano, even if it was in tune.”

“You must be good,” I remarked, assuming he was. He had strong hands, almost elegant hands, now that I noticed.

“I stopped playing seriously when I was thirteen.”

He had his coat on. I didn’t. He sat down on the foyer bench and waited for me to get into my coat. He took his glasses off and squinted at the lenses. Without his glasses he wasn’t bad looking at all. I wondered if he might be of Korean origin, not Chinese. I had a soft spot in my heart for Koreans. One of them had saved my dad’s life.

“Am I stopping you from doing something you like to do?” I asked.

“Play for them? No. I used to think it would make me popular, but… not anymore.”

“You’re Korean?”

“Good guess. Son of immigrants.”

/

And? You gotta keep it going, stud.

Can you guarantee I won’t say something stupid?

/

Now I wanted to have more conversation with Samuel Lee. There was something about him… I mean, a completely intellectual something. Or not. I needed to process him, find out if he was worth knowing, so I could forget about him and move on. Move on to what? Or to whom?

“Did you have trouble with this group?” I asked, hooking a thumb in the direction of the other graduate assistants and post-docs.

“I don’t make friends easily,” Samuel Lee replied. “I don’t know that it’s a racial thing. Maybe it’s the clunky glasses.”

“Yeah, we’re all too sophisticated and liberal to be ethnically prejudiced, but not so with glasses… and wheelchairs. I’ll bet you were a classically-trained pianist, weren’t you? A prodigy.”

/

Holy cow, Batman, I think she digs me!

A dangerous assumption, Robin. Cool it.

/

“I usually played the ‘Lee Variations’ on most classical pieces.”

“The Lee Variations?” I queried, missing its meaning.

“My own adjustments to the music,” he explained. “I was undisciplined and often played by ear without my glasses. I was just a kid. I hear you’re an excellent mathematician.”

“Where did you hear that? I’d like to hear it, too.” Actually, I didn’t even know why I was back in school. All of my doctoral work now felt wrong or pointless. If I thought about it too much, it terrified me. “You’re a post-doc, aren’t you?” Let’s talk about him, not me.

/

Yeah, probably a career post-doc.

Is that how you’re going to impress her, cowboy?

Then let’s talk about her, not me.

/

“I somehow managed to finagle my doctorate out of a lesser university which I won’t name,” he replied. “I think I got my position here because of my engineering degree. How did you-”

“Engineering?” I prompted, stopping him from asking about me and my problems. I noticed Samuel Lee’s tenseness, and if I correctly interpreted the symptom (and I am an expert on male urges), I was surprised to assume I was having such an effect on him.

/

What’s this frown she’s giving me?

Bad news, dude. She’s damn nice but ain’t nothing going to come of her and you.

/

“My father wanted me to be an engineer,” he explained. “My mother wanted me to be a pianist. I wanted to be an astronomer. I guess I’m all three but not too good at any of them. The real astronomers here find me useful when their equipment needs some engineering.”

OK. I had to admit that I was theoretically interested in Samuel Lee. Take away those big chunks of glass in front of his eyes, judge that he’s strong enough to pick me up out of this chair, and feel the gentleness of his personality… Interesting. Maybe… Oh, nothing could ever come of this! He’s too nice. I’m too… damaged.

“I appreciate your offer to help me get out of this old building,” I said without thinking. “This campus is full of obstacles to my new set of wheels.”

“New?” Samuel Lee queried, and squinted at my face, probably looking more closely at that big scar where my forehead hit the steering wheel.

I started to slap the armrests of the wheelchair in frustration but managed to make fists and lower them slowly. “I traded a fairly new and shiny red Mustang for this thing I’m sitting in,” I muttered quietly. I glanced up at the guy and looked away, unable to even know what kind of emotion was written on my face and not wanting to see his reaction to it.

“Oh,” he said.

Amazingly, Samuel did not pursue the matter. I felt so grateful that I tried damned hard to put a smile on my face. “So, you get ideas,” I said, wanting to make it plain to him that I didn’t want to talk about my messed-up life.

“I get questions,” he replied.

“And you want answers.”

“Mathematics is about getting answers,” he said. “Math problems have exact answers. Science only has approximate answers, which always lead to more questions. So I like to say my job is about questions, about the pleasure of looking for more questions.”

“But you need math to make science work,” I said.

“The problem with that is, I think math answers get treated as science answers, especially if the math is elegant or if it becomes the only way to represent the answer. This comes, of course, from someone who has just confessed to not being good enough at math.”

“You’re one of those who thinks no theory should ever graduate to the status of law,” I said.

“Nicely phrased,” he said. “You can probably guess that all I have is a philosophy and no serious data to feed to any hypothesis.”

“What sort of astronomy do you do?” I inquired.

“Galaxies and redshift.”

“You must have been a serious star-gazer in the past. Do you still like to do that?”

“I’d like to be able to, but I don’t have either the time or a dark enough sky around here. Also, I don’t see nearly well enough to make it worth the effort.” He took off his glasses again. They looked so heavy to me. “No, I see the universe better in my imagination. I wish I could help it all make sense. There’s so much out there that begs explaining. Starting with gravity.”

“You don’t like warped space?”

“Don’t get me started.” He smiled again. It was a nice smile, innocent and perhaps reluctant. His words in opposition to Einstein were pretentious but maybe his smile was also a disclaimer. I was then shocked to realize that I would enjoy any flavor of smile from Samuel Lee. I suppose it was my fault that I made so few people smile for me.

Now I was thinking I would test him. I was thinking I could like Samuel Lee. I could feel comfortable with him, with just a tiny bit of sexual tension to add interest. Very tiny. Get real, girl! I thought he was deeper than I was. Maybe I could find more depth in myself, a depth that was different from what made me a mathematician. I hoped my physical condition wouldn’t become a problem. I hoped my emotional condition wouldn’t become a problem. The wreck, the surgery, the recovery, and the paralysis were still raw in my memory and in my life. I had hardly decided I wanted to go on living. And now I would be helplessly complicating my new life, adding Samuel Lee into it, even as I was struggling to nail down my doctorate.

Should I get started with Samuel Lee?

I had been oblivious to the junior faculty for a while but as I began putting on Dad’s old fatigue jacket I noticed that too many of them seemed to have been watching Samuel and me. It made me feel like I might still be a player. Or were they fascinated by the mating ritual of the least likely pair in the species?

/

Damn, man! Was everyone watching me hit on Millicent?

You’re the man, man! Or else, she doesn’t have good taste in men. Or…

Shut up.

/

“I think I will,” I said.

“Will what?” he asked.

Voices in the Wilderness

 

“Hello, Samson.”

It was not Milly. It was a stranger. But he was alive. He was alive! Or was he? He felt… good? Good! Too good? It was not Milly. It was a stranger out there beyond his closed eyelids, above where he lay. He lay on what, where, why? He stirred, took a deeper breath, tried to decide if he wanted to open his eyes and see the stranger. Yes. Her voice was not Milly’s but still seemed familiar. He peeked into the brightness above him and saw a dark face hovering there.

“Hello,” he replied. He opened his eyes wider as they adjusted to the glare.

“I’ve already questioned you,” the stranger said, “but you won’t remember that.”

Samson struggled to sit up and as he did, he saw he was on the ground. He could see very well – with both eyes! He closed one eye, then the other, and there was no doubt: the infected eye was healed! He then tried to see the female person’s face, anxious to understand who she was. She was dark and her expression was lost in the brightness around her. There was something above her and behind her which was not the sky.

Samson wanted to get up, to stand up, and he felt strange doing it – it was so easy. He rushed upward and lost his balance, favoring an injured foot that was apparently no longer injured. The woman grabbed his arm to help him stabilize and the contact was electric, almost making him fall again. He couldn’t remember anyone ever touching him.

Samson looked harder at the woman as she released his arm. His eyes finally resolved the details of her face. Her brown eyes were large, her dark hair short, her cheeks smooth, her lips full. She was exotic to him, unfamiliar to his experience – not that he could know what should or should not be familiar to him. She frowned at him briefly, then lost all expression. That disturbed him, perhaps frightened him, because it seemed unfriendly, even threatening. She wore a black uniform with a form-fitting collar that covered her neck and to which was affixed star-shaped diamonds on each side. He realized what she was. Navy! Admiral! And…

“You’re an African?” Samson asked. As he asked it, his eyes focused past the person to a great machine that covered the sky above her. Now he remembered the shock of the incandescent ball falling toward him, the paralyzing force crushing him. He began to lose his balance as he relived the memory of dying, then experienced the wonder of the thing that killed him.

He felt a hand on his shoulder and reached for it reflexively as he steadied himself. The feel of her warm soft flesh surprised him and he wanted to maintain the contact even as she tried to pull her hand away. He understood nothing of his reaction or of her reaction. He only knew something was now different. The Navy woman cared about him, even if her expression remained blank. She pulled her hand gently away.

Samson looked down at himself and saw the new clothing he now wore: shirt and short pants, shoes and socks. He noticed another person rise to his feet beyond the woman, saw the uniform he wore, similar to hers but dark blue, with golden winged emblems on the high collar. He thought he understood what was happening.

“If you’re Navy then you’re a captain,” Samson said to the man. “That’s your ship! I’m saved!”

“How do you feel?” the female admiral asked. “You needed several hours of treatment in the medical cocoon.”

Samson could see clearly with both eyes! He didn’t feel hungry or weak! His skin felt clean. His nose wasn’t runny. His muscles and joints didn’t hurt. He wasn’t dizzy. Even his foot was healed! “I feel wonderful!” He looked up at the admiral, smiling with gratitude.

“You may feel good now,” she said seriously, “but the treatment didn’t correct everything. You shouldn’t exert yourself too much.”

Samson nodded and looked again at the belly of the ship above him. “Is it a starship?” Milly had told him many stories about the Navy. They were a fearsome force, not always nice to people, but always interesting. He wondered how accurate Milly’s descriptions were, wondered if he should be careful what he said to them. But they had doctored him and given him new clothes. Why couldn’t he trust them?

“It’s a small starship,” the admiral replied. “It nearly squashed you. It never saw you. It should have. I apologize. I know it was painful.”

“I’ve always wondered why no one could see me down here. There are people up there, aren’t there? Don’t people look at Earth anymore?”

“Did Milly hide you?” the admiral asked.

“Why would she do that? Did you talk to her? She’s been very strange lately. I think she was upset that I was close to dying.”

“This is Milly?” The admiral held the gray tube that was his only friend.

“I thought it was.” He took the familiar device and rubbed its cleaned cylindrical surface, seeing the marks of wear that proved it was his.

“No, I didn’t talk to Milly,” the admiral said. “Perhaps you can talk to her.”

Samson checked the energy charge and unrolled the device. The screen displayed the usual information as the Milly Program started. He spoke to it. “Milly? Milly, can you hear me?” There was no response. “It isn’t damaged, is it?” he asked the admiral.

“It didn’t seem damaged,” she replied. “I inspected it but was unable to get a response from Milly.”

Samson was worried. Milly had been his only friend in a hostile and vacant world. He had always tried to push the injuries, the pain, and the fear into the realm of the not-real, and pull Milly into the real. Thoughts and dreams and hopes and Milly were his reality; lions and flies and infection were all lies of his imagination. Even if he might no longer need Milly, he would still feel sad if her program had died.

“Admiral,” the other Navy officer spoke.

Samson looked again at the captain and saw the man’s gray eyes staring at him. Both of them, he realized, had never taken their eyes off him. Was something wrong, that they should stare so much at him?

“Jon, this is Samson,” the admiral said. “Samson, this is Jon. My name is Fidelity.” She did not turn to her captain as she addressed him. She kept her gaze on Samson while she continued to speak to the captain. “When I landed the yacht near the African Space Elevator he was directly beneath. Yet the yacht’s sensors didn’t see him. The gravionics reported an anomaly in its pressor skirt, which forced a change in landing zone. Samson’s health was very poor and the yacht further aggravated his condition. I winked him into isolation, into the medical cocoon. I questioned him after he was repaired, while he was semiconscious.”

“Why is he here, Admiral?” the captain asked. “How could he be here?”

“He couldn’t tell me, Jon,” the admiral answered, still not turning to face the captain, very oddly keeping her back to him.

Now the admiral and the captain spoke in a language Samson couldn’t understand, although he was fairly sure it was Standard. He tried to find some meaning in the voices and expressions of the Navy officers but all he could detect was the subtle tension between them, expressed mainly by the admiral continuing to keep her back to the captain.

“You must leave us for a while,” the admiral finally said to Samson. “We’re not abandoning you. We have some important business to discuss. We’ll help you go home as soon as we can. Stay nearby, where we can find you. Call out if you need help.”

This unexpected news alarmed Samson. He didn’t understand it.

“Samson,” the captain said.

Samson looked to the captain and saw what he thought was an expression of concern, but no further words of reassurance came from his mouth and his expression turned blank. Then the admiral handed Samson his backpack.

He knew he had been abandoned before but he had no memory of it. He didn’t remember his parents. Here was a man and a woman who had magically appeared to rescue him. They were not his parents, but now he feared a second abandonment.

He trembled as he fumbled his computer into his well-cleaned backpack. The admiral helped him shoulder it. She handed him his spear and without speaking another word, pushed him to the edge of the ship’s cover. His face plunged into an invisible curtain of electric sensation which quickly parted, making him stumble forward. When he stopped and turned around, the ship was gone from sight.

Something buzzed in his backpack. Samson pulled the pack onto one shoulder to remove the little computer from it. He unrolled it and saw words on the computer’s display.

“Don’t go to the elevator.”

“Milly! Is that you?”

“Yes.”

“You aren’t imaginary?”

“I don’t know.”

“Then you are.”

“Perhaps we each imagine the other.”

“Why wouldn’t you talk to the Navy officers?”

“The Navy doesn’t need to know more about me.”

“Why? Are you some big secret? Milly?”

Samson waited for a reply. He walked and waited. Milly was a big secret, even from him. He hoped he was not being abandoned by the Navy. He glanced back several times at where the starship might still exist. He remembered touching the admiral, how warm her hand was, how soft her brown skin. He remembered her sweet scent and how her eyes stayed on him, making him feel so alive. He missed her. Gone for a few moments and he missed her terribly. She was the first real person Samson could ever remember seeing. He still had Milly. Maybe he also had the admiral, and the captain.

===

“Hello, Samson.”

Jon Horss heard the words as he stepped out of the yacht’s egress elevator. Jon Horss heard the voice, her voice, and hesitated at its unexpected softness. But he was free at last! He had started to charge forward, to demand an explanation for his imprisonment, but the voice stopped him. The words stopped him. His rage, building for days, sputtered and died as he took in the scene. It was remarkable for two reasons: one, the admiral’s back was to him; two, she was kneeling over a small body on the raw ground of a planet.

The body on the ground stirred, opened its eyes and said, “Hello.”

Horss stepped carefully forward to observe. He swallowed the anger that tried to revive. He stayed far enough away from the admiral to relax his combat reflexes. The admiral raised a hand, obviously intended for him to obey as a signal to remain at a distance. Horss moved to one side, beyond close tactical range. He was bothered by the unnecessary command. He was irritated by not having the admiral’s full attention. He was unsettled by the unexpected and bizarre tableau. He analyzed and tempered his responses but failed to objectify and control his situation, a situation that now seemed much further out of control.

It was a child! Or it appeared to be a child! He concentrated, tuned his ocular augments, refined his auditory filters and increased their gain. The figure on the ground was long-haired but perhaps it was male. It must be an android, but there were negative psychological issues for possessing a child android. Thermal emissions were inconclusive, and comparative data were impossible to retrieve. Why was it lying on the ground? Why would an admiral – or anyone – have one? Why would it be here? Where was here? The questions spun around in his mind, almost occluding his personal concerns. Where was his patience to examine the problem and his logic to unravel the dilemma?

Horss watched the thing sit up, close one eye, look out the other, then switch eyes. It pulled its feet under itself and pushed up. It teetered as it favored one foot. The admiral grasped its upper arm to help it. It started at the touch and almost fell down. The actions seemed peculiar to Horss. Why was this such a clumsy android?

“I’ve already questioned you,” the admiral said to it, “but you won’t remember that.”

The voice came softly to his analyzing aural augments. She spoke Twenglish! It almost shifted Horss’s mood into a different mental dimension. He was forced into the Navy procedure for determining what was real, and it hurt. Once the pain was gone, he let his augments run the rest of the diagnostics in the background. He was awake. The scene was real. He could now let fascination command his attention as events unfolded.

It squinted in the glare under the yacht to see her. Horss never saw an android squint. He saw it was Eurasian. The admiral was neither of those component Earthian flavors. Why would she want a child of that type? Why did the admiral speak Twenglish to it?

“You’re an African?” it asked – in Twenglish.

One question answered, another created. Why would it speak that ancient branch of modern English? Only actors bothered to speak it fluently. A large fraction of the population could understand the old dialect. It was certainly possible that a child could use the language, perhaps influenced by seeing too much entertainment media from that era of history.

Samson – she called it Samson – looked from the admiral to the ship above. It began to sway, perhaps simulating vertigo. The admiral offered a hand on its shoulder to steady it. It reached for her hand. She allowed it to touch her hand. They each reacted, it trying to hold onto her hand, she trying to pull the hand gently away. Horss noted the detail with detachment, unwilling to assign significance to the effect he observed in the admiral. She must know there was no physical threat from the thing’s touch. She seemed able to react as a person, not as an admiral!

Samson looked down at its feet and let its eyes and hands explore the clothing it wore, as though unaccustomed to such attire. Then it noticed Horss and turned to him. Regardless of what it was, Horss felt special in its gaze. As Horss rose, Samson apparently saw the insignia on the collar of his dark blue uniform.

“If you’re Navy then you’re a captain,” Samson said. “That’s your ship! I’m saved!”

Saved from what? Horss wondered, marveling at the detail of manufacture, the flawless human mimicry. This was a very expensive android. Was it an android? It simply could not be a real child! How could the presence of a real child be explained?

“How do you feel?” the admiral asked Samson. “You needed several hours of treatment in the medical cocoon.”

Samson’s eyes abandoned Horss, returned to the dark female admiral. The eyes seemed organic to Horss, their expressiveness perfect. Every visual datum argued for human, every point of logic demanded nonhuman.

“I feel wonderful!” it said with gratitude.

“You may feel good now,” the admiral said, “but the treatment didn’t correct everything. You shouldn’t exert yourself too much.”

She was trying to convince Horss this entity was a real little boy, freshly discovered on this planet, somehow sick or injured, and now restored to health by the kindly Navy admiral. That was an impossible break in the flow of events leading up to this moment. The boy android could have nothing to do with Navy politics and any plans the admiral had for Horss’s future.

Samson rubbed his fingers across the fabric of his clothes, wiggled his toes in the shoes on his feet. He looked up in wonder at the belly of the ship under which they stood.

“Is it a starship?” Samson inquired, seeming full of innocent wonder.

“A small one,” the admiral replied. “It nearly squashed you. It never saw you. It should have. I apologize. I know it was painful.”

She landed the yacht on top of him? Why would she claim to find him on this planet? What planet was this? It looks like Earth. It can’t be – it’s illegal to be here! Horss should have checked for a shiplink immediately but overlooked it in his rush to be out of his prison. He found the link available and hated to take the time to verify its factual integrity while the scene progressed before him.

“I always wondered why no one could see me down here,” Samson said, reading his script with almost casual facility. “There are people up there, aren’t there? Don’t people look at Earth anymore?”

Earth! Horss should have deduced the location based on the transit time from Headquarters and the rarity of habitable planets. There are people up there, yes, billions, and they do look at Earth. There were probably millions of imagers flying, crawling, and perched all across empty lands, providing landscape views for everyone’s wallpaper up there in orbit. Earth was the most heavily observed planet in the Union, the probable Mother World of all known sentient life. The android raised the best question against its own existence, an even better argument against it being a real child. The entire galaxy would raise a cry for a real child lost on the surface of the Forbidden Planet!

Horss held his questions, suffered ignorance unhappily, and tried to meter his discomfort into a reservoir of fuel for later action. The android was part of a test. Horss was supposed to react in some way to it. In which way? Android or not, he wasn’t so desensitized by Navy life that he could ignore this marvelous being. He should assume it was human, a real little boy. The admiral obviously wanted him to believe it. She certainly should not want to be suspected of possessing an android child.

“Did Milly hide you?” the admiral asked.

Who was Milly? Horss wondered, greeted by yet another strange item.

“Why would she do that?” Samson asked. “Did you talk to her? She’s been very strange lately. I think she was upset that I was close to dying.”

“This is Milly?” The admiral held forth a small gray tube.

“I thought it was.” Samson took the tube and rubbed its surface. Horss assumed it was an external information device, a data interface of obsolete design. His telemetric augment found no electromagnetic signal that emanated from it, however.

“No, I didn’t talk to Milly,” the admiral said. “Perhaps you can talk to her.”

Samson unrolled the device, then spoke to it. “Milly? Milly, can you hear me? It isn’t damaged, is it?”

“It didn’t seem damaged,” she replied. “I inspected it, but was unable to get a response from Milly.”

The boy and the admiral still spoke Twenglish. Horss could follow the words easily because it was close to the version of English that was his native language. Further, he could tell that the boy spoke the language too well. No one of his young age should speak Twenglish that well, unless he was intensively trained to do so, but why would that be? It was no use trying to reason it out. He should just ask.

“Admiral,” Horss said, ready to pose his questions, unwilling to suffer in silence any longer.

“Jon, this is Samson,” the admiral said, interrupting him. “Samson, this is Jon. My name is Fidelity.”

She used first names and no ranks. Perhaps she did it for the boy’s benefit, to lessen the fear he might have of the Navy. The admiral didn’t turn to face Horss as she spoke: a datum that continued to raise alarms in his tactical analysis.

“When I landed the yacht near the African Space Elevator,” the admiral said, “he was directly beneath. Yet the yacht’s sensors didn’t see him. The gravionics reported an anomaly in its pressor skirt and forced a change in landing zone. Samson’s health was very poor and the yacht further aggravated his condition. I winked him into isolation and put him in the medical cocoon. I questioned him after he was repaired, while he was semiconscious.”

The admiral spoke Twenglish almost as well as Samson. Horss wondered if she had added it to her repertoire for his benefit. How could the android and the Twenglish language work for the admiral in whatever plans she had made for Horss? And she had used the verb repaired in describing what the medical cocoon had done, even though the word more often meant fixing a machine.

“Why is he here, Admiral?” Horss asked in Standard. “How could he be here?”

“He couldn’t tell me, Jon,” she replied, also switching to Standard.

“Why did you bring him outside the yacht?”

“For his protection.”

“Protection?” Horss couldn’t push past the existence of the boy android. Samson was stuck between him and his escape from this predicament. All he could do was let the scenario play out and try not to let ignorance kill him.

“Samson must stay away from us,” the admiral said. It was an explanation that needed its own explanation.

“Why can’t you leave him on the yacht?” Horss asked.

“Because Baby – the young AMI you met – will be too interested in having a playmate.”

Baby was today’s first surprise for Horss. Baby had unlocked his cabin and directed him outside the ship. If he thought the little gray sphere floating in the doorway to his stateroom was a shock, this scene beneath the yacht had eclipsed it. What sort of admiral is Fidelity Demba, that she can present such mysteries to me?

“Put him in stasis,” Horss suggested.

“The yacht doesn’t have a stasis unit.”

“Why can’t we deliver him to some agency that can take care of him?”

“We will. We don’t have time right now.”

“Surely we can take the time to do what is right?”

“I won’t explain the time constraint. Help me place him outside the damping field.”

“You would send him away?” Horss tried to sound as worried as he should be for a real child, or for such a sophisticated android. “Out there?”

“I must.” The admiral sounded more impatient than concerned.

Horss frowned to compete with the admiral’s tepid show of concern. It wasn’t difficult to dislike what was happening, whether he was worried about the android child or aggravated by his continuing lack of control over his own fate. Samson, however, was a better actor than either of them, as his troubled expression played from Horss to the admiral and back to Horss. Children – real children – were almost magical, like small mythical creatures. This one was even more special because of the circumstances. Horss couldn’t help but be mesmerized by the situation, despite his personal troubles. The child was impossible, whatever he/it was.

Horss accessed the yacht’s sensor data. He saw the classes and distribution of local flora and fauna. It was dangerous here. He shouldn’t condone what the admiral intended to do with the boy. Why would he feel like helping her, in any case?

“I can’t place him in danger, Admiral,” he replied, daring to defy an admiral. “There are large predators not far away.”

Samson’s dark eyes caressed the admiral and Horss with tenuous hopefulness. What an exquisitely modeled expression, Horss thought, and hardly needed to remind himself that he should believe the android was a real child. Its face said it very much wanted to stay with him and the admiral. It couldn’t know how unqualified they were to be his friends. A long, tense silence ensued between Horss and the admiral.

“You must leave us for a while,” the admiral finally said to Samson. “We’re not abandoning you. We have some important business to discuss. We’ll help you go home as soon as we can. Stay nearby, where we can find you. Call out if you need help.”

“Samson,” Horss said, surprising himself, wanting to sound concerned and realizing he actually was concerned. Further words failed him. He was concerned but also unsure of the meaning of the child, as though he was being confronted by an act of magic, real magic, in a universe that didn’t allow magic, didn’t even allow sincerity.

Samson smiled grimly at Horss and returned his gaze to the admiral, searching her face for some reprieve, perhaps. The admiral handed Samson his possessions. Horss saw the boy’s hands tremble as he put his computer in his pack. Samson mounted the pack on his shoulders and gripped his spear. He took a deep breath and exhaled unevenly, as though emotion constricted his throat. Do androids simulate breathing? Horss was surprised at his own willingness to believe in the boy’s humanity, surprised at the small sharp twinge of emotion this caused in himself.

The admiral pushed Samson. He contacted an invisible force, perhaps an i-field, which resisted his motion. He broke through, stumbled a few steps, and turned around, frowning. Horss could see the boy looking in a random pattern, confirming the presence of an i-field. Samson stood there for several moments. He looked down again at his clothes and shoes. He backed away slowly, turned, and walked off toward the river.

===

“Release him, Baby,” Admiral Fidelity Demba instructed the AMI by shiplink.

[When can I talk to Samson, Mother?] the AMI asked.

The admiral sighed. Baby really was a child. But she was not a mother. If she stopped to think about Baby’s birth and existence it would shock her again. Just before this critical point in her life, a miracle of thinking electronics occurred – Baby: a spontaneous autonomous machine intelligence – adding a complexity to her affairs she couldn’t afford and could never ignore. Perhaps the honor of becoming the parent of such a rare AMI had given her the conceit that she would be capable of tearing Captain Jon Horss away from the single most powerful person in the Union – Admiral Etrhnk, Commander of the Union Navy. Then Samson appeared beneath her ship, throwing her plans, her perspective, her life – everything – into chaos! Samson’s appearance was an impossible thing! She was amazed at herself for continuing on this lethal path, even if her resolve and calmness were due mostly to her in-body augments that controlled the effects of stress.

“Don’t call me Mother,” she ordered Baby. “Please do as I requested.”

[He’s coming,] Baby reported. [He looks angry, although I think I surprised him. Can I come out and watch?]

“No. Stay inside, Baby. You know your duties.”

[I can perform my duties from outside, Mother. I’m always connected to the ship.]

“Do as I say! This is serious. You’re too young to understand how serious and dangerous.”

[But Samson is outside. Won’t he also be in danger?]

“Don’t argue with me, Baby. Here he comes. Stay at your post.”

She looked down at the impossible child on the ground and saw the first signs of his awakening. She leaned over and said in Twenglish: “Hello, Samson.” At the same time she saw Jon Horss as an overlaid image in her ocular terminal as he descended the egress elevator and registered his astonishment at the scene. She turned off the view of Horss in order to concentrate on Samson.

Admiral Demba participated in the dialog with Samson and Captain Horss, never once thinking she was in command of the situation. This was an out-of-body experience, as though she observed herself and the others from a distance. It was exhilarating, interacting with a real Earthian child and waiting for Jon Horss to explode behind her.

Finally she had forced Samson to walk away from the ship. It endangered him, not keeping him on the ship, but it might prove something about the reason for his existence. She watched him walk away, saw him remove the data device from his backpack, and heard his side of a conversation. She was startled at the exchange, knowing it had to be an act of mental illness, yet wondering at its effortless inventiveness. She continued to be surprised by the boy. She continued to be distracted by his presence. She continued to keep her back to Captain Jon Horss, the Navy Commander’s flagship captain, the officer she had stolen, abducted, imprisoned, because she greatly needed a ship’s captain of his ability, and who would probably try to kill her before the day was over, and before she ever knew who Samson was.

A child!” Horss declared. “What is happening, Admiral?”

“I don’t know.” She knew he would not believe her. Admirals were never to be trusted in any case. She would not even try to convince Horss of anything in regard to the boy. She could hardly convince herself he was real.

“This is Earth,” he said. “Why are we here?”

“To talk,” she replied.

“You brought me here just to talk? I was a prisoner on your yacht for three days, Admiral! Why didn’t you speak to me then?”

“You were a prisoner so that I wouldn’t be required to talk to you. It was necessary that I not speak to you. Now we can talk.”

“Why would that be, Admiral?”

“That is for you to deduce.”

“What are we to say to each other?” Horss asked.

“I don’t care. Anything.”

“Nothing in particular? The Freedom? The Request for Voluntary Reassignment?”

She was out of her normal pattern, far out, ripped away from all that was familiar. She had been safe in her little office in Navy Archives, comfortable in her daily routine, and seldom threatened by the lurking violence of Navy life. It was home, and to a lesser degree the construction site of the Freedom was home. She had lost her home. She had deliberately put herself in this desperate position, deliberately, yet without deliberation. Even without the appearance of Samson, she would be dismayed by her impulsive actions. The great starship, the Freedom, was a project that all but defined her existence, but to launch it under these circumstances was beyond her comprehension. She saw the pattern of events as necessary but understood nothing of its ultimate cause for being. She saw herself as the necessary force of will but understood nothing of herself. The rush and crash of events gave her too little time to be introspective, but it was probably safest not to be too introspective. And here she was, thinking too much into distraction while a potential enemy stood behind her. She could almost feel the tension emanating from Jon Horss’s body. No admiral let anyone take such a position in this kind of circumstance. Every admiral expected attack, never yielding a position of tactical advantage. He hadn’t yet attacked her, so that might answer one question: did Etrhnk explicitly order Horss to kill her?

“He isn’t a real child,” Captain Horss said. “No one does that to a real child: sending him away into probable danger.”

Perhaps Samson had temporarily halted an attack by Horss. It wasn’t wise to remain with her back to him, even with Baby watching to warn her. She knew she had a knack for escaping attempts on her life, but Horss was a past champion of personal combat in the Navy Games. The attack, if it came, would have to be unarmed combat. Although his class-1 uniform gave him powerful weaponry linked to the energy of her yacht, the yacht would also prevent either of them from turning their weaponry on each other.

“I should have enlisted your help when I found him,” she said. “I admit the shock of finding him, coupled with your situation, disturbed my judgment. There’s a visual log of his physical condition and his medical treatment. If he was any worse I would have taken him to a hospital.”

She waited while Horss linked to the ship’s database, found the cocoon medical log, and watched the visual data through his shiplink. It gave her a moment to study him. A class-1 uniform fit the body precisely, showing the shape of the body. She could see he was well age-maintained and probably still as lethal as when he competed in the Navy Games years ago. His face was younger than his real age of sixty, but it retained enough character – a naturally forceful state of expression, almost a scowl – to reinforce his status as commander of the Navy’s flagship. His gray eyes broke away from viewing the medical log and bored into her with what she imagined was controlled anger and consternation.

“So,” he said, “why did you send me the Request for Voluntary Reassignment, Admiral?”

Horss made no comment about the medical log, she noted, but it was a document that would need much longer examination to match to the child he had seen too briefly. And of course there was the “admiral effect” that cast doubt on everything she proposed as truth.

“The Freedom needed an outstanding captain,” she replied. “Such a captain was being denied the Galactic Hub Mission, as though political forces were at work to prevent the success of the Mission. I was forced to bypass the obstructing politics.”

“Why me? There are many good captains.”

“There are not many good captains,” she objected.

“You know what this does to me, to my career.”

“It saves you from being an admiral.”

“Would you explain that?”

“Younger men than you have made admiral, Jon.”

“I’m as good as them. I came up through the enlisted ranks. I was delayed.”

“Where did they go, those who made admiral before you?”

“How should I know? The Navy is huge. What’s your point?”

“They disappear, Jon.”

“They retire early when they don’t see a further promotion.”

“And then they disappear. I’ve looked for them. Their Archive records remain incomplete. It’s a pattern I’ve investigated for years. I don’t like my data being incomplete.”

“And so I should be grateful for what you’ve done to me?”

“I know you see admirals every day, Jon. I’ve been told you have a very good relationship with Etrhnk. Perhaps you know more than I would expect. But we both know the Navy is not what we would like it to be. And I promise you it is much worse than you suspect.”

“The Navy has an almost impossible job to do,” Horss said. “I prefer to think we are only as bad as we need to be to get the job done. We human beings are not the easiest species to watch over. And why is it you I’m talking to? I know you’ve been involved in the planning and construction of the Freedom, but it’s out of your hands now.”

“Let us walk and talk.”

“You intend to follow the boy?”

“Of course,” she said.

“Of course,” he echoed.

“Activate your i-field,” she ordered. “I don’t wish to be discovered on this planet and be arrested for trespassing.”

They pushed through the i-field of the yacht. She checked to see that the sun didn’t cast her shadow on the ground. She could see Horss only as a data construct in her ocular terminal. They were both invisible. She started a telemetry link to Horss’s class-1 uniform. Initial data indicated he was not as stressed as she thought he was in the beginning. Jon Horss was, by all accounts, a very tough person – he had to be, to survive almost ten years in close proximity to the Navy Commander. Despite the volume of data she had gathered on him, despite the battery of profile-analysis programs she had used on that data, Horss was her choice solely by process of elimination – and for having been close at hand. She could only hope he was the right person for the job.

She had put so much effort into the search for a good captain that the process made some kind of change in herself, as though she must use herself as an example for comparison and for critical analysis. She had found herself deficient in too many ways. She was not even a complete person, thanks to the War.

“I have very little information on Admiral Khalanov,” Horss said, his tone of voice softened almost to a normal conversational level. “Why are you doing this for him?”

“We’re friends.”

“Allies, you mean?”

“And you suppose that admirals never trust each other and can never be friends.”

“Well, neither of you is an active line officer, so maybe you’re different.”

“We have a long history together,” she offered.

Horss didn’t respond for a few moments as they walked across the African plain. The admiral received a message from Baby that Horss was researching her service record through his shiplink.

“You were in the war,” he finally said.

“Khalanov and I served together in the war,” she offered.

“You were killed,” he noted. It was like an accusation.

“Both of us.”

“You were lucky. Damn few ship casualties can be revived.”

“We were not so lucky.”

“You lost continuity?”

“Yes.” She thought her reply in the affirmative was expected yet it still disturbed him. Did he have some pity for her because of her death?

“Then you don’t remember Khalanov from before the war,” Horss said, obviously uncomfortable continuing on this line of discourse.

“Neither of us remembers the other. We met afterward by chance. We’ve always tolerated each other. Khalanov can be difficult but I always seem to be able to keep our relationship nearly pleasant.”

She and Khalanov had died manning a technical surveillance ship – a spy ship. They had broken cover to warn their task force of a trap. Their small vessel was caught in the crossfire. The record wasn’t specific about why the Mnro Clinic volunteered to revive her and Khalanov. Nothing remained of her memories. She wasn’t happy that Horss asked such questions. She didn’t like to think about the answers.

“Why did they try to revive you?” he asked, perhaps intuiting how he could aggravate her.

“I don’t know. Because they could. It was a different era. And we were heroes.”

“You risk your life for Khalanov, stealing me from Etrhnk. Why is it you and not Khalanov?”

“I wanted to get to know you.”

“Why, Admiral?”

“Khalanov is merely the Engineer in Command of the Freedom during the Ready Trials. I am the Mission Commander.”

“You?”

“Yes.”

“But you’re…”

“An elderly admiral who’s spent too many years as the Chief of Navy Archives,” she finished his sentence. She didn’t appear elderly, of course. One retained as much vigor as possible – in order to survive. It was a terrible way to live and the revulsion of it passed through her in its old and fetid familiarity.

“You were a line officer in the war…” Horss offered, perhaps diplomatically.

“And I lost continuity and retain no useful experience of that time.”

“Yet, you challenge Admiral Etrhnk,” he pointed out.

She would not encourage him to think she might be up to the task before her. It was enough that she was going on the mission herself and accepting the fate of the ship as her fate. “Every admiral has his captains. It may as well be Etrhnk I steal from.”

“And so we’re here,” Horss summarized, “following a mystery child on a planet forbidden to most people, including Navy personnel.”

===

Samson waded across the wide, shallow river. He climbed up the bank. He marched quickly across flat ground, pounding the butt of his spear in the tall grass with each pair of steps. He was happy he could walk so easily – no more cut on his foot! It was proof he hadn’t imagined the Navy officers and their invisible ship.

He glanced often upward as the space elevator loomed larger. He didn’t need the elevator now. This was merely a sightseeing trip. Perhaps his approach to the dangerous old structure would concern the Navy officers and make them follow him. He worried they would forget him. He hardly thought about the space elevator, his mind was so filled with wonder about the Navy. Was it true the Navy was so powerful, its officers so hard, that it ruled all the human races?

A jumbled mass of broken slabs of concrete – the remains of elevated roadways – filled the spaces between the buildings, making it difficult for a small boy to traverse to the base of the space elevator. Samson stopped in the shade of a cantilevered slab of roadway. He emptied the contents of his pack on the ground and discovered items placed there by the admiral: food and water. He drank the cool water and chewed on a food bar. He unrolled the computer and saw more words on its display surface.

“They’re following you.”

“I don’t see them. How do you know?”

“I am able to see them.”

“Are you afraid of them hearing you?”

“They are not what I fear.”

“What are you afraid of?”

“Questions, questions, questions!”

“Answers, answers, answers!”

Milly was afraid of something and would not tell him what it was. This worried Samson for a few moments but there were too many other things to think about now. He wondered what his parents would be like. How many times had he daydreamed of reunion with his parents? One of them was Asian and one was European, but which would be which? Just thinking about how much more possible the reunion was excited him. But why did they never come looking for him? How many times did he ask himself that question? The answer could now be much nearer, and it fascinated him. It also made him wonder about the admiral. She was real, unlike his parents. She might take care of him. He didn’t understand why she had pushed him away, but he wanted to believe she cared about him.

= = =

“I hear his side of a conversation,” Horss commented. “He’s talking to his imaginary friend.” If the child is her creation, he thought, he is a work of art. He couldn’t imagine the planning and programming required for such a creature. Perhaps the AMI called Baby was an accomplice. Perhaps the child was also an AMI. Even so, the purchase of such an AMI would be very expensive and must involve many others who could compromise her security. Yet, who knew what resources she could call upon? She was the oldest admiral in the Navy. She had received the highest award for valor, at the cost of her life. Out of respect, he wanted to hear what she could tell him about the Freedom and its mission, if only she would begin! He could set aside his anger and resentment. He could open his mind to rational argument. He could try to accept the fate she had forced upon him. It was a terminal assignment but it was a hell of a ship, and he might die knowing why space beyond the frontier had been denied humans for the last two centuries.

Most of all, that little gray sphere which had released him from the yacht, who had told him it was a spontaneous AMI, and feeling it was probably true: that alone made Demba special, and it meant he would try very hard to give the admiral the benefit of his doubt about her motives.

“His presence is a great distraction,” the admiral commented about the child, as if voicing a complaint to herself.

The admiral understates the obvious, Horss mused. Samson was the greatest distraction Horss could imagine – greater than he could imagine! If the child was real he should not exist!

“I am equally distracted,” Horss admitted. “A total mystery. An entire continent, supposedly empty of human life, and you land your yacht on top of a child! As you probably understand, Admiral, I have to worry about both the possibility that Samson is real and the possibility he is not real. If he’s real, we are responsible for his safety, and I have to learn why he exists. If he’s not real flesh and blood, then I have to wonder if he’s a device with a purpose I would not like. I would prefer to be arguing with you to withdraw the Request for Voluntary Reassignment.”

Admiral Demba delayed responding. Horss could not read her image in his ocular terminal for any clue to her mood or thoughts, not that anyone could tell anything about what any admiral felt. Her voice was his only possible source of data. It was an exquisite voice. It seemed wrong that a Navy admiral should possess such a vocal instrument with what seemed like a great untapped potential. She kept her voice flat, her words colorless, and it created an additional tension in Horss, almost a yearning for the voice to be released from bondage. This was a strange feeling to add to the even stranger situation.

“I’ll not withdraw the Request,” the admiral finally said. “You know it’s too late for that. You will need to refuse the Request.”

“You know I can’t refuse this Request for Voluntary Reassignment!” Horss was surprised the anger returned so quickly. He was always able to control his anger or abolish it. Anger never truly helped any situation. His lack of anger was a major reason why he did so well in the Navy Games. This was a unique and vexing situation but he should be able to remain rational. “It’s a damned dangerous mission and refusal would brand me a coward,” he said, forcing calmness into his voice, if not into his mind.

= = =

“You’re sure?” Samson asked the empty air. “I can’t see them. How can you see them? You’re talking now. Do you care if they hear you? They can probably hear every word I say. If they’re invisible they could be walking right behind me.”

“They’re keeping their distance from you,” Milly’s disembodied voice replied, “but they are following you. The admiral doesn’t understand why you’re here. She’s suspicious of the situation. I don’t think they can hear me.”

“You sound so different, Milly! Why am I here? And who are you, really?”

“You were here to be found, Samson. I was only trying to help you, but it was difficult for me. You’re saved now. You’re healthy for the first time in a long time. You’ll have your life. My job, though poorly done, is finally done.”

“Your job? You’re not my computer, are you, Milly? You’re somebody real, somewhere else.”

“I’m not real, Sammy. I’m not anywhere. I have to go now. Please, be careful.”

“No! Don’t go! I have things to ask you! Why am I here? Why can’t I remember? Why do you have to go? Will you be back?”

“I don’t think I will be back, Sammy. I’m sorry I could not help you better.”

“Milly! Why?”

“The future endangers you, but perhaps less so now. I endanger you. She might find you. Good-bye, Sammy!”

= = =

Captain Horss was not handling the stress very well now, if Admiral Demba was interpreting the telemetry from his class-1 uniform accurately. She had brought him here partly because of the chance that his personal security could have been compromised by the Commander of the Navy. She was not very experienced in personal security screening because Navy Archives was never of much importance to the power struggles among admirals. She hated to lose Jon Horss. She hated to lose the Freedom. She was beginning to feel that she would lose both.

“You’ve saved me from being an admiral, Admiral,” Horss said. “You’ve volunteered me for the Galactic Hub Mission. I think you should be trying to sell me on the captain’s job. Is there something I don’t know about the mission, something that makes it different from what I think it is?”

“What do you think it is?”

“We’ve lost twelve Navy ships and more than three thousand civilian vessels at or beyond the frontiers of the Union, most of them toward the hub. The Freedom is not even armed and it’s about to take its turn to cross the frontier.”

“That’s about all there is,” she agreed. “Other than an emphasis on stealth, there’s nothing to insure we won’t be joining the other lost ships. Were you planning on living forever, Jon?”

“That’s something you ask a Marine. Yes, I was hoping to go through one full rejuvenation and see what the next life was like. Why are you going on the mission? You haven’t had your one child yet. You don’t care about becoming a mother?”

“I wonder,” she said, “if you would ask the male version of that question, were I male.”

“I would ask myself that question, if I had looked upon the child the way you did, admiral.”

“Did I?” Did she? “Perhaps I did. I must also allow you to voice personal questions of me, even though I don’t feel personally responsible for what is happening to both of us.”

“Who else would be responsible?” Horss asked almost angrily. “I don’t think Etrhnk was even in the Navy when the Freedom and its mission was first proposed – by you.”

“As for that,” Demba responded and paused. “I am no longer sure of anything about this mission. The boy has changed everything.”

= = =

Samson squinted in the afternoon glare of equatorial sunlight. Another pile of rough debris stood in his way and he was getting tired. He found a place to sit and to contemplate the situation. The broken concrete masses captured the heat of the sun and made an oven of his place in it. He drank from his water container. He decided it was time to turn around. Perhaps the Navy officers would take him back now. With a last glance upward at the looming elevator shafts and their massive base, he shouldered his pack and turned around.

“Giving up?” an invisible person asked.

“Milly?” He didn’t know whether to feel happy or worried. It sounded like Milly – but it didn’t.

“That’s my handle,” the voice answered. “Who’re you?”

“I’m Samson. Don’t you remember me?” It wasn’t Milly, not the Milly he knew. Every word was expressed exactly as if a real person spoke. The bodiless voice also moved around him as it spoke.

“How curious. I see you have the Navy in tow. It’s different this time. What do we do about the Navy? This will be interesting. They know you’re here, don’t they, Sammy?”

“Their ship almost landed on me! They helped me get well but I have to stay away from them for a while. Then they’ll take me with them. She promised! You aren’t Milly! Where is she?”

“I’m sure I don’t know what you’re talking about, child. Who was your Milly?”

“She was my teacher.”

“Indeed? Here’s my first lesson: get your butt away from this place before something wicked this way comes.”

What did the real Milly say? Samson thought. She might find you. Was that a warning of danger? Is this she[_?_] Samson picked his way around another pile of debris. He hurried to meet the Navy officers. A short distance back the way he came he encountered something he didn’t notice before. Among the jagged chunks of concrete were odd surfaces, missing edges, and smooth depressions forming a path in the rubble. Where the path bridged a v-shaped depression a small object glowed in the sunlight. Samson descended the concrete V and paused as he straddled the bottom. He bent to look more closely at the colorful bit of rock or glass. It seemed almost alive, with intricate inner patterns that twinkled in the shadow of the V. He picked it up.

He had made a mistake! The object stuck to his fingers! He tried to remove the red stone but it was welded to his skin. He yelped with pain when he pulled hard to remove the thing. A pinprick stung the finger under the stone, making him jump, and a sharp tingling raced up his arm. He felt strange.

“Milly?” Samson said slowly, barely able to make his tongue and lips move.

“Speaking.”

He described what happened. It took a long time, as though something else shared his brain and interfered with his thoughts.

“Too bad,” not-Milly remarked without much concern.

“What… is… it?” he struggled to ask. Samson felt a disturbance all over his body. He swayed and leaned over, hands closer to the ground to anticipate falling down. In a few seconds he stabilized somewhat.

“A piece of something scary,” not-Milly finally responded. “Try going back toward the Navy. Over to your left. See what happens.”

Samson took a few steps and fell down, his body refusing to follow his directions.

“It won’t let me! How can I get rid of it?”

“Cut off your fingers.”

“I can’t cut off my fingers!” Even as fear made him try to pull in deep breaths, something else slowed his breathing, giving him a false but insistent calmness.

“I didn’t think so,” not-Milly remarked.

“What can I do?”

“Yell for help. Maybe the Navy will hear you.”

“Help! HELP! HELP!”

Samson called several more times, then lost his voice.

“Cat got your tongue?” not-Milly asked. “You’re not where they think you are. With their longer legs and air-conditioned uniforms, they’ll be heading directly toward the elevator building. You’re off their course because you had to go around some big stuff. The Navy officers are trim and tough. They can find you if they really want to.”

Samson tried to decide which direction to go but his mind seemed unfocused. He walked again in the direction not-Milly had said to try and his legs failed him again. Something made him stand back up, and when he walked in a different direction he received a feeling of pleasure. He was now following the strange path. He couldn’t walk very well and he stumbled often in the rough terrain of broken concrete. Every so often as he tried to move in a slightly different direction he suffered a numbing of his legs and a near paralysis that threatened to hurt him with another fall.

Samson staggered toward a tunnel in a pile of concrete near the base of the pedestal building. He didn’t want to go into the tunnel but that was what the red stone wanted him to do. He curled his fingers into a fist and the stone transferred itself to the palm of his hand. He barely felt the pinprick to his palm. He slapped the stone against the tunnel wall to try to shatter it. He collapsed from shock. When he regained his senses he saw the stone was undamaged. Samson entered the tunnel. Would the Navy officers be able to find him? His mind seemed dulled and he couldn’t think much about the future and about consequences.

= = =

“Is something wrong, Admiral?” Horss inquired, wondering at her silence and stillness. “I know the boy is a total mystery, but what connection could he have with us and the Freedom?”

“I do suspect,” she answered slowly, “that something further is wrong. Yes. something is wrong with me. If you have not already thought of it, Jon, I would warn you that your life is in danger, not just your career.”

“Are you threatening me?” Horss felt the push and pull of his augments trying to prepare to control his body as he anticipated danger.

“It was never my intention to harm you.” the admiral said earnestly.

“Who else is here to cause me harm?” Horss asked. He tried to analyze the image of the admiral as provided by the yacht’s tight-beam data link. He could only hope it was not a false image. Fidelity Demba seemed distracted, perhaps worried.

“It might be me,” she said. “I don’t want to harm you. I don’t see how I can.”

“What has happened, Admiral? Has something changed?”

“What can I say that you would believe?”

“Damned little,” he responded in Twenglish.

I was manipulated!” she declared. “I don’t know why or how or when!”

Horss was startled by the outburst of the woman’s emotion, so unlike an admiral. “Who manipulated you?” he asked daringly.

“I don’t know! Someone took my dead body from the war and made me who I am! Made me what I am! I was the tool that worked for years to mount a new exploratory mission. I was the fool who helped guide the construction of the Freedom!” She turned to him and almost reached out to him in some gesture of concern for him. “Your personal security may have been compromised, Jon. Mine apparently was, perhaps long ago. That’s why I brought you far away from Headquarters.”

“My personal security?” Horss was unable to analyze one too many ideas and its implications. He had to just shut up and think hard. Realization then struck him and he felt naïve and stupid for not suspecting the cause for his isolation aboard Demba’s yacht. He was in quarantine! No, he was not stupid. He could not be faulted for not believing he could be an unwitting actor in such a sinister action. He could never believe himself invaded by a coercive agent, reduced to the role of an expendable pawn in a show of power by an offended Commander of the Navy. A worm! She thought he could have a worm!

“I’ve never talked at such length with an admiral,” Horss spoke calmly and alertly, aided by his augments. “I suppose we are now expecting some word in our conversation that will trigger a worm. And then I will try to kill you. As a matter of curiosity, how did you expect to defend yourself?”

“I didn’t. That’s why I have a medical cocoon aboard the yacht and Baby watching to wink me into it.”

Horss stopped to think some more. He could hardly decide where to start. “Damn,” he swore mildly in Twenglish. “This is interesting! Did you consider the further consequences, regardless of how this visit to Earth transpires? Even if all goes well and we both survive, what keeps Etrhnk from removing both of us from the Freedom?”

“I did consider that,” Demba replied. “All I could do was take one step at a time. There is some evidence that the mission has strong backing, but I suspect Khalanov and I are expendable. I’m not sure who would want to take our places. I can never know how Etrhnk will react. His predecessors were more predictable. I have been manipulated, so now I’m less concerned with a task that someone else has set for me. It would be interesting to see what becomes of the Freedom but it was apparently never my ship and never my mission. I got it built for those who wanted it, and my services are not needed any longer. And now I’ve put myself in a situation that guarantees I’ll not sail on her.”

Horss did not relax but he did feel a temporary satisfaction with this information, as strange as the information was. “And into this mess a real child magically appears! Did you learn anything about Samson when you questioned him under anesthesia?”

“I had too little time and not enough expertise when I questioned him,” Demba willingly replied. “Samson doesn’t remember his family. He doesn’t remember anything beyond about a year ago. He has wandered through this part of Africa, aiming to visit the space elevator. It was sometimes a tourist attraction. He thought someone might find him here. In that year of wandering, often out in the open plain, no one saw him. No one reported him missing. I’ve already searched for news stories. It should have been prominent in the media. Nothing! I believe he came from… nowhere, and he was put here for me to find. It’s as if he is another pawn in this game! Another body whose damaged mind could be exploited.”

“Who could have anticipated you would come here?” Horss asked. “You didn’t file an itinerary with Africa on it, I’m sure.”

“I have no answers, just paranoia.”

Horss considered that Navy Commander Etrhnk would have the power to place a real child on Earth for Admiral Demba to stumble upon, although it implied an immoral facility far greater than Horss imagined existed. How would he know where Demba would land? What possible role would he have a child play? Had Demba even suspected the child could be an assassin, with a bomb planted inside his body? Had she immediately winked him into her medical cocoon without scanning him? She had said the yacht could not see him as it landed! The child had not exploded, yet she then sent him away – as an excuse to be alone with Horss for awhile. Etrhnk could not have anticipated the Request for Voluntary Reassignment. Nor did Horss believe Etrhnk could have reacted swiftly enough to do much more than breach Horss’s personal security for a crude attempt to make him kill or injure Demba. If Etrhnk needed revenge to maintain his status, Horss imagined it would be a subtle and elegant yet unmistakable object lesson for all of his enemies. The mechanism must still be only in the planning stages.

“I can’t imagine what threat Samson could pose,” Horss said. “If he was mechanical, if he could be some kind of assassin, I’m sure you were motivated to inspect him very thoroughly.”

“I can’t even imagine,” Demba said, “solving the mystery of his appearing to me at this precise moment in time. Yes, I did worry that Samson could be a lethal threat to me, and I did very little to test that idea! It just seemed too absurd, even as paranoid as I was. And there is also this person named Milly who Samson believes is real, not just an artificial intelligence program in his computer.”

“Do you think Milly is real?” Horss asked.

“No, but I hate to think the child is mentally ill.”

“He would be in good company.”

Demba gave him a look of arched eyebrows that Horss could easily see in his shiplink image of her. “I don’t know what is good about us, Jon. Are you interested in helping me track Samson?”

“Certainly, Admiral. Are we allies for the moment? Can we divide our attention away from the threat we may pose to each other?”

“We had better. Samson has disappeared.”

= = =

“This is a bad dream,” Samson complained, finding a moment of mental clarity. “I feel like I’m floating. I can’t control anything!”

His feet were down there somewhere, shuffling along in the tunnel. He held his spear without really feeling it in his hand. He should have been apprehensive, even alarmed, but he wasn’t.

“Tell me about it,” not-Milly said with commiserating inflection. “Life is a dream, without control, without understanding, without meaning.”

“You sound sad. Are you a real person? Are you alive? The other Milly said she wasn’t.”

“You can still ask these stupid questions, zombie-boy?”

He was not accustomed to such emotion from Milly. His computer had always spoken factually and patiently, no matter how hard he tried to elicit a human reaction from it.

“Are you alive?” Samson asked.

“I’m not dead!”

“What is a zombie?”

“Somebody who’s dead but is still walking around.”

It was strange how the haze in his mind seemed to lift a little when talking to this person. But… “You’re not very nice!”

“It isn’t as much fun as naughty.”

“Do you know anything about my parents?”

“I know they’re dead.”

“You don’t know that!”

His other Milly never expressed an opinion about his parents, except to say it was logical he had parents. He had worked hard to get Milly to explain his possible origins. He only learned by looking at his reflection to ask about race and culture, birth and death. His mythological parents grew to godlike stature in his imagination. Their logical existence kept hope alive.

“If they were good parents and loved you,” not-Milly said, “wouldn’t they do anything in their power to rescue you? They’ve had plenty of time for the rescue, so they must be dead.”

“I could have been kidnapped and escaped and nobody knows where I am!” It was one of many excuses he gave his parents for abandoning him. Sometimes he hated them. More often, he created elaborate and emotional scenes of reunion, and never questioned why he was abandoned.

“Sure,” the female voice replied with sarcasm.

“Why can’t you help me, whoever or whatever you are?”

“Why couldn’t the other Milly help you, whoever or whatever she was?”

“I don’t know! I always thought she was just my computer. It’s only today that I began to think she wasn’t my computer at all. She started talking to me like she was a person or maybe an AMI. And it didn’t sound like her voice was always coming from the computer. Why do you sound like her? How do you make your voice come out of the air in front of me? Where are you?”

“I’m somewhere over the rainbow. Maybe I sound the way I do because that’s how you want to hear me.”

“Why can’t you help me? If you can make your voice come out of the air, you can probably do other things. You can see me, can’t you? You’re just invisible like the Navy officers.”

“I’m not visible because I’m not there, Sammy. Nor do you need to know what else I can and cannot do.”

“You could talk to the Navy people and tell them where I am.”

“I think they can find you if they want to.”

Not-Milly’s pitiless voice echoed behind him, as though she was abandoning him, too, as Samson continued down the tunnel. He tried to wait for the Navy officers every few steps but the urging of the stone didn’t allow him. Dusty light beams stabbed into the tunnel through gaps in the debris. The tunnel sloped downward into darkness. He used his spear to feel his way along, the blade sparking against the mineral surfaces. The darkness stretched on for a timeless distance.

Samson’s spear lost contact with the tunnel wall just ahead of him. Impelled to walk at a fast pace in the dark, he frantically probed the changing tunnel but still fell down when the floor sloped steeply. He lay in dampness for a few moments until the stone made him move. He didn’t know if he was injured and bleeding. He was numb beneath the tingling, pleasuring signals of his tiny master.

He got up and walked as slowly as he was permitted. His footsteps echoed in the black distances of a large room. He was afraid of a dark with no stars and moon and shiny space cities. He kept the spear in front of him, striking support pillars, and then a wall. He followed the wall until he found a doorway. Beyond the doorway he could not touch the opposite walls with his spear extended fully. He walked for a long time in the dark, the wide corridor sloping upward as it followed the spiral design of the African Space Elevator pedestal building.

He thought the Navy would try to find him but he was afraid they wouldn’t. He was also very tired. The admiral was right: she hadn’t fixed all that was wrong with him.

= = =

They stood atop a table of concrete, captain and admiral, and looked around them for a sign of Samson. Each could see the other as an image projected through their shiplink augment but no one else should have been able to detect their presence. They also studied passive sensor data overlaid on their ocular terminals as the yacht and Baby searched for Samson.

“Why is the Elevator still here, still projecting into space?” Horss asked. He gazed up at the giant pedestal, shaped like a smoothly threaded screw twisted into the earth. “It must be five hundred years old. And dangerous as hell.”

“Five hundred twenty-three,” Demba quoted from her data augment.

“But its collapse isn’t imminent?”

“No. The other three elevators were designed for easier disassembly. This was the original. It should be another five hundred years before they need to take it down.”

“Where did he go?” Horss wondered aloud, sounding genuinely concerned.

Admiral Demba had to consider her own feelings about the boy. Did she have any feelings for anybody, even for herself? She had carried Samson out of the yacht, unconscious in her arms, and she had worried about him less as a real person than as an enigma and a huge complication. Now that he was gone from sight, he seemed less real, as though he was so impossible that he must never have existed, that she must have imagined him. But she had dressed him in clothes she had learned how to fabricate. She had measured him and studied him. She had felt good about what she had accomplished. She had done all that – she had! – all the while wondering and wondering and wondering. She remembered the feel of him, his helplessness, limp in her arms. He had to be real!

“We’re here,” Horss said, “but there’s no trace of Samson. I see no way in, not down here. The ramps entered the elevator building well above ground level, and they no longer exist. There are no doors or stairs or ladders Samson could have reached. I think we missed him. He may have fallen in this rubble and hurt himself. I think we should backtrack.”

“We may never find him,” she said. She anticipated a feeling of huge disappointment, of losing something almost like magic. “It’s as if he never existed.”

They turned away from the wall of the elevator tower. They leaped down and picked their way through a tangle of rusting cable exposed when demolition pulverized long beams of pre-stressed concrete. The ramps and roadways had been intentionally destroyed, as if in preparation for tearing down the entire elevator. These connecting structures must have provided additional strength to the elevator’s base, in addition to transporting billions of Earth’s population into the elevator, to send them to new homes in Lagrangian space.

“There are many places in this field of rubble,” Horss commented, “where he could stay hidden, if he’s immobile. We may have to ping to find him. What is that?” Horss pointed to a field of level debris off to one side of their route. The lengthening shadows of late afternoon brought contrast to the chaos of broken material.

“It appears to be the track of some machine,” the admiral said.

“What machine would cause such an irregular track?”

“Is that a tunnel it leads to?” Admiral Demba felt an urge within her augment-deadened body that made her stride quickly down the strange path to the hole. When they reached it she knew what the urge was. She very much wanted to find the boy! Her sanity seemed to depend on Samson’s existence! They squatted in the mouth of a tunnel that appeared purposely drilled through an irregular ridge of rubble. They examined the smooth walls and noted the oval shape of the cross section.

“I don’t like this tunnel,” Horss said, “because I can’t imagine how or why it was made.”

“He was here. Samson went this way.” The admiral pointed. “He fell right here. That’s blood! He was hurt!”

“Samson!” Horss shouted into the tunnel. “Why would he go in there, especially if he’s hurt? Are we so terrible that he runs away from us? You knew it was wrong to send him away!”

“I know it now. But I think there is something happening to him that I couldn’t anticipate. I didn’t believe in Milly, but I didn’t believe Samson was mentally unstable. I thought he liked me. I thought he wouldn’t go so far.”

“How could you believe he liked you in five minutes of conversation ending in his forced departure?” Horss asked angrily. “Let’s get in there, Admiral. Samson may be in danger.”

Even as she worried about his physiological telemetry, Demba thought Horss was passing a test that she was failing. Despite the situation into which she had forced Captain Horss, he was only concerned now for the safety of Samson. She, on the other hand, still hoped that she would live to sail the Freedom. Its mission was her responsibility, it was another mystery to solve, and she deserved to share the fate of its crew.

The low height of the tunnel made their progress slow and uncomfortable.

= = =

His legs operating by some other force of will, Samson shuffled by a phosphorescent sign in the vast upward spiral of the passageway. The sign’s green glow marked the location of yet another emergency communications terminal which no longer existed. Fatigue dragged at his legs. Another glow of symbols drifted toward Samson in the gloom: an internal elevator. He slowed and tried to stop. His legs trembled. The red stone on his hand sent insistent signals to his leg muscles, pushing him to continue, but fatigue pulled him down. He collapsed next to the elevator entrance with his back against the wall. After a few moments a sigh of pleasure escaped from his chest. The sweet tingling from the red stone rippled across his body. It was all he could feel; beneath it was total numbness. He struggled to his feet, took a few steps, and collapsed again.

“I can’t go any farther!” he shouted weakly into the echoing dark. “Tell it to leave me alone!”

“Rest for a while,” not-Milly suggested from a distance. “The Navy will be along shortly. Or will it be something else?”

The darkness almost made Samson believe there was a person standing over there. That unseen person was trying to scare him. He hated that she sounded like Milly. “What is coming?” he asked. “Why am I here? I didn’t want to come here!”

“It isn’t that interesting, is it? Just a big, empty, dark building. It’s hard to believe close to eight billion people came through this very corridor.”

“I want to go back!”

“Don’t you want to meet your new friend?”

“No! Where is it? What is it?”

“It’s large. It’s hot. Stay here a little longer. You’ll see it.”

Samson pulled himself up again, using both the wall and his spear. He moved into the shallow indentation formed by the elevator doorway. He peered in both directions into the darkness of the hallway. He heard a frightening raspy sound echoing from the walls not far away.

“Try the elevator,” not-Milly suggested.

Cold, dusty steel rubbed across Samson’s back as the doors behind him opened. He almost fell backward. He grabbed at the edge of the opening, dropping his spear. He glanced into the deep darkness of the elevator car and tried to ignore the threat its lack of illumination implied. Briefly, almost unconsciously, he felt he had once enjoyed elevator rides. Samson stooped to find his spear and something in his peripheral vision made him look toward the up-slope corridor. He saw tiny lights that seemed to float in the far darkness, and they twitched in unison and became an expanding cloud of star-like points of luminance. He turned, stumbled backward, lost his grip on the slick edge of the doorway and struck the stone in the palm of his hand on the metal. The shock almost rendered him unconscious. The concrete floor rushed up to hit him in the face. He lay stunned for a few moments, until vibrations registered on the ear which lay against the floor. An acrid burning odor reached his nose. A trickle of adrenalin urged his body to move but Samson couldn’t feel his extremities, much less use them.

“Don’t go into the elevator,” a different voice said, speaking very close to him.

The red stone slipped off his hand. Sensation prickled under his skin out to the ends of his arms and legs. Nerves in his skin revived slowly and painfully. Flailing weakly against the floor, his hand touched something that hurt him. He cried out, dragged his hand to his chest where he could smell burned flesh. His muscles were weak and convulsing, as he scrabbled slowly in a circle until he got himself partly into the elevator.

“Do you want to go up?” not-Milly asked.

YES!” he shouted weakly, feeling for his knees with hands whose nerves were on fire.

“Going up.”

The floor vibrated under him, and as it rose above the level of the corridor he could sense that he was still not completely within the elevator car. A wave of heat flowed past him. He found one knee and pulled. Something touched him lightly, probing his back and shoulders, starting to curl around his sides. He resisted.

WAIT!” Samson cried.

“Aren’t you in yet?” Not-Milly demanded. “Shut up and MOVE! You can’t understand how difficult this is for me!”

“Milly, it’s in here with me! MILLY!”

Acceleration pinned his weak body to the floor. A dagger of pain stabbed the back of his neck. Darkness fell across his mind.

= = =

[You have a wife and daughter, Jon,] Admiral Demba sent to Captain Horss, printing the words on his ocular terminal.

The signs were quickly getting fresher as Demba and Horss came into the spiral corridor and began the ascent. Infrared vision and augmented sense of smell were sufficient to track Samson. Any minute now they should also be able to hear him. Now that it appeared they would soon find the boy, Demba began a silent conversation with the captain. She was still monitoring Horss’s physiology by direct link to his class-1 uniform. His telemetry seemed normal enough, given the circumstances. She doubted her own body chemistry was any less disturbed.

“I don’t have a wife and daughter!” he responded impatiently and aloud.

[Quiet!]

“I don’t have a wife and daughter! Do you give a damn about the boy or android or whatever the hell he is?”

[I met your daughter. Makawee. I’m sorry about Chumani.]

“Chumani? What about Chumani?”

[Chumani died. She was only sixty. Why did you abandon them?]

“We don’t have time for this, Admiral!”

[You didn’t know.]

“No, I didn’t know Chumani died.”

[Two years ago. A mining accident.]

“It always is. Did she remarry? No, don’t tell me. It isn’t the time to discuss such things.”

[It was one reason I chose you.]

“Because I abandoned my family?”

“Because I could verify you have a family,” she said aloud in Twenglish, giving up listening for Samson. “The bad guys have no verifiable family. More Archives data analysis. Of course, the same could be said of me and Khalanov. We go back many years into our past – and we disappear. Both of us. I hadn’t realized Khalanov had never complained to me of his lost personal history. I have no relatives to tell me things I can’t remember. Records for us seem to have existed but are conveniently lost or destroyed. Much like the records of the interlopers. I’ve been blind to this situation!”

“What interlopers?” Horss asked

“Most of the officers who run the Navy, including Etrhnk. What I don’t know is what they are. Or why. They come and go, all of them young and ruthless.”

“Not something I need to worry about, Admiral! You made sure of that! You don’t seem very concerned about the boy. This place should make responsible people worry about a real child!”

“I hoped there would be an active sensor sweep by some other agency, so that the yacht could use the scatter. If something happens to me, I hope you will take care of Samson.”

Horss stopped walking and Demba halted a few paces ahead of him. She turned to face him, feeling her adrenaline surge before an augment brought it under control.

“If something happens to you, I’ll try,” Horss replied, sounding distracted. He moved toward her. She backed away and to the side, uncertain of him. He moved past her, staring into the near distance. “Something different here,” he spoke worriedly. “A big heat track from up the corridor. Thermal smudges on the wall. Warm things on the floor.”

The admiral opened the weapons pod on her right forearm and a projector flooded the corridor in bright light. Metal elevator doors reflected light onto Samson’s spear. And onto something else. Admiral Demba started to rush forward, up the slope, then stumbled to a halt. What she saw… What she saw made her convulse and fight for breath.

Something broke in her, the shock was so great! She hardly understood what the breakage was, only that she – or reality – would never be the same! Demba could resist screaming with only her greatest will. She held her breath to keep from screaming, to keep from vomiting.

“Get us a ping, Admiral!”

She closed her eyes and used her ocular terminal to order an active sensor sweep. A complex pattern and composition of energy sprayed out from her yacht and caused reflections from every small feature of the African Space Elevator. She and Horss watched the data structure build in their eyes. They watched the machine intelligence sweep the data for patterns and targets of possible interest.

The top floor!” they declared in unison.

A transmat reference field seized them. The spiral corridor snapped out of existence. Dazzling yellow sunlight beamed into a great chamber through transparent walls. Deep blue sky painted the glass between massive arches in the domed ceiling. Six black carbon tubes, widely spaced, dominated the center of the floor: the freight shafts of the African Space Elevator. Patterns embedded in the floor, graceful arcs of gray, led toward the seventh tube within the circle of six, sweeping inward from the observation elevators at six locations at the perimeter of the floor.

By one open elevator door a dark and sparkling mass lay slowly moving, as though breathing. It occasionally twitched. Sunlight danced across its coal-dark form, picking out every color of the rainbow. It was a wedge-like ramp in shape which, though geometrically precise, seemed arbitrary, temporary. It looked like black velvet dusted with precious gems. Points of brilliant color cascaded across its planes and shot the surrounding building surfaces with spectra of light.

Demba and Horss approached. They saw Samson lying in a pocket atop the slope of the thing. Demba couldn’t get clear biometric signals from the child due to some kind of electronic interference from the creature, but she thought Samson was alive. The alien being shocked her, fascinated her, even despite her fear for Samson’s life. The reality before her eyes was of monumental significance – if she could believe her eyes. It was almost disappointing to have her augments reign in her body chemistry and force her to become calm and cautious. She wanted to feel the fascination, even the fear. It was alien, and possibly dangerous, and there were vague but vital implications for Samson being in contact with it.

“I can’t even find a similar xenotype,” she commented, having done a rapid search of the databases available to her shiplink.

“Authorize force!” Horss growled, raising his arm to point at the beast.

“I’m perfectly capable,” a thin, clear voice from the creature said, “of conversing with humans. Please wait and don’t touch me.”

It spoke Twenglish! More surprising than the natural speech was the implication it forced upon them: that it was sentient. The admiral was nearly frozen in contemplation of the mysteries and opportunities placed before her, including a child who shouldn’t exist.

Horss wasn’t so frozen. “What have you done to the boy?” Horss demanded. “He’s injured! Give him to us!”

Demba was pleased with Horss’s apparently sincere reaction and regretful of her own lack of initiative. She let him lead, even as her data augment notified her of a stress spike in the telemetry from his class-1 uniform.

“I’m releasing the child to you,” the alien said. “He’s not dead. I stopped the bleeding. He’s not in pain but he will be. I’ll move now. Don’t be angry. I tried to help him.”

The dark mass abandoned its geometry and flowed out from under Samson, causing him to roll limply away from the smoking concrete just uncovered. Horss knelt down to examine Samson as the alien retreated. He wasn’t burned, despite the heat of the alien – except for his leg.

His leg!” Horss exclaimed. “God, God, we let this happen to him!”

A parabolic reflector unfolded instantly from the weapons pod behind the captain’s right wrist and a visible beam of energy flashed at the alien. The energy reflected off the being, its flank having metamorphosed into a field of diamond brilliance. Energy scattered in many directions, mostly upward where it pitted the surfaces of the chamber. Channels of vacuum in the super-heated air crackled shut. In the next instant smoke erupted from the floor and the alien poured itself into the hole it made. It disappeared in seconds.

“I would have liked to know more about the alien,” the admiral said with augment-forced calm, upset that it departed. She felt there was a connection between it and Samson, because they both spoke Twenglish. Horss jerked her back to reality, made her see the horror of Samson’s leg: half of it was missing, as they knew it would be, the stump charred and bloody.

Damn the alien!” Horss declared. “What a terrible fool I am! The child is real! Let’s get him back to the ship!”

“We can’t do that now.” Demba dreaded what was to come.

What? Look at his leg! And his face! His hand! How can you let this child suffer? If he becomes conscious he’ll be in terrible pain!”

“Your physical telemetry has altered for the worse, Captain. That’s a possible precursor signal for a worm attack. Step away from Samson.”

If he would move she would try to send Samson by transmat back to the medical cocoon on her yacht. She couldn’t concentrate well enough to make the command while watching Horss intently for signs of impending aggression.

“There’s a Mnro Clinic on Earth,” she said. “We can take him there as soon as possible.”

/

Mnro? Physical telemetry? Horss understood the admiral was spying on his physiological data! Mnro: not a good choice for a trigger word. The most famous name in history. Did he feel triggered? No. But he did feel very angry. The Request for Voluntary Reassignment. The kidnapping. The days locked away on her yacht. And now the boy! Why could she not convince him the boy was real, and spare him the guilt and horror of this moment? She deserved punishment!

Horss rose slowly to his feet, tearing his gaze away from the wounded child. The admiral tried to approach to tend to Samson but Horss pushed her roughly away. She stumbled back.

“Samson,” she implored, gesturing toward the boy with arm extended.

It would be so easy for him to grab that arm, Horss thought, and just throw her. Just throw her. It won’t take long. The boy seems stable, not in any immediate danger. How can I even imagine such a thing? A useless question!

He grabbed for her arm. It was so close, yet he missed it. She moved it out of reach, just by chance, making him look inept. His anger continued to build and he seemed unable to bring it under control. Why did his augments not suppress his chemistry, to reduce his need for rage? Was this how a worm could work? Or was there something else, some other conditioning that was forced on him without his awareness? He put the questions without answers out of his mind. He knew what he could do. It wasn’t nice, not even sporting, but it was justice.

/

“You heard the trigger word, Captain!” she declared. Perhaps, but it is a poor choice, she thought. Too prevalent. She didn’t know what was happening to Horss. She could see he pondered too many thoughts, weighed too many decisions, to be under the influence of a worm. A worm, she had presumed, should take over his mind and demand the specific action for which it was programmed. She had counted on such a single-minded imperative to lessen the captain’s fighting skills, allowing her a chance at survival. She thought he was now acting on his own initiative, trying to decide on a course of action that would satisfy both himself and Admiral Etrhnk.

“Well, little lady, that’s a matter of opinion,” Horss said in excellent Twenglish, perhaps aping the diction of a character in an old American movie. “I don’t have an opinion. Don’t care. I just hanker to hurt one of the bad guys. You!”

He attacked. Decades of martial arts training elicited a defensive reaction from her body. For the second time her quickness made him miss and it seemed to anger him. She wasn’t surprised to show this small amount of ability. She knew she was quick. She knew she was familiar with every personal combat method to the point of unconscious reaction. But she wasn’t the artist that Horss was. She would pay for her transgression against him. She hoped she wouldn’t pay with her life.

/

Horss attacked the admiral again, this time to study her ability. He would no longer make a fool of himself. It was apparent that she was trained for personal combat, despite being a desk sailor. He worked around her, trying a list of attacks and feints. She reacted predictably, just as standard training would have her do. In a few moments he was able to inflict minor punishment, knocking her down twice.

“This isn’t something I enjoy, Admiral, despite what you may think. You’re not a worthy opponent. Don’t worry. I’m not going to kill you. I’m just making sure you won’t make me captain your ship. I’m also working off a little steam, as they used to say in Twenglish. Call it giving you a lesson. If I really wanted to kill you, I would do this.”

Horss pressed his attack, but she weathered it more easily than he anticipated, resorting to one of the purely defensive disciplines. He knew the weaknesses in every defensive school of combat. He would show her where they were. It required more effort than he expected, but he intended to hurt the admiral.

As they danced around the sun-struck room, circling the carbon tubes, he remained dissatisfied with the fight. She wouldn’t take chances. She wouldn’t risk attacking him. Yet he felt she could do better. He sensed that, given the motivation, Admiral Demba might rise further to his challenge. It angered him that she held back, almost as though she didn’t want to hurt him. Yes, she was old and she was good, better than she knew she was. He didn’t need to hold back with her.

The thought came to him that he could kill her. This woman toyed with him, even though she didn’t have the tools she needed to defeat him. She would fight defensively until he gave up, because she knew he held back. She was a smaller woman than those who challenged men in personal combat. She expected him to hold back, being a gentleman and an officer. What would she do if she really felt her life was threatened? If he did kill her – accidentally – her uniform might keep her viable long enough to save her. Why did he need to do this? Why did he want to keep asking himself stupid questions?

Horss circled his adversary, giving her every clue that he now intended to unleash his full arsenal upon her. She half-crouched in a defensive stance but as she took the clues to his real intent, she relaxed into an upright position, as though she would resign the match.

“You will fight,” Horss threatened.

/

She didn’t respond to his words. She responded to the language of his body, his declaration of war. Something more changed in her. As she watched him, seeing every vector of energy in the geometry of his body, seeing which muscles contracted, seeing where his eyes looked, seeing where his eyes should look next, she awaited his assault as it seemed to begin in slow motion. She could sense his first move and the two after that. She could determine which fist or elbow or knee or foot would become his weapon at exactly which point in space and time. At the computed instant a fire blazed through her body, forcing her limbs and torso through the painful distances needed to position herself for the killing blow. She couldn’t stop it. She could only marvel at the process.

/

Samson awoke. He cried out in pain. His leg was on fire somewhere below his knee. As he wept he saw motion through his tear-blurred eyes. He blinked away tears just in time to vaguely see the admiral and the captain collide. The captain jerked sideways, fell, and lay still. The admiral spun away and he could not keep her in his cloudy view. After only seconds, the Navy officers could no longer hold his attention away from the pain. He closed his eyes and gasped to fill his lungs for screaming.

/

She killed him! How could she have killed him? Demba never intended to harm Horss. She didn’t think she was capable of harming him. She saw the negative telemetry from his uniform and knew his heart was stopped. She knelt by him and tried to see if his uniform was functioning to keep him viable. She now had two victims to transmat and only one medical cocoon. She worried that Horss’s condition would be too critical for his uniform and augments to treat. She could see the pulsing of his class-1 as it started to react to his death.

Demba stood to reacquire sight of Samson. She didn’t see Samson! As she stepped away from Horss’s body, it vanished in that optical manner typical of a transmat: a bluish haze, then instantly absent, followed by a muffled clap of air into vacuum. For a moment she assumed Baby took them both, winked them to the yacht, but then her thoughts cleared well enough for her to realize Baby wouldn’t initiate such action. Baby was, in fact, trying to get her attention by shiplink.

“No,” she said to Baby’s request to transmat her. “Someone else has taken them. I want to know who. I’ll see if they’ll take me.”

She waited. She was alone in the African Space Elevator. The sunshine was gone from the world. In the gathering shadow of evening the grid of bluish haze that was a transmat reference field could be seen forming in front of her and hunting toward her. She turned around to face one of the windows. She looked out upon the darkening plain with its black dots of vegetation, scattered herd animals, and faint tracery of a city that once existed beyond the outlying buildings of the elevator complex. She could see the brighter habitats of humanity shining in space at a Lagrange point, as the shadow of Earth took away the blue light scatter and made the atmosphere more transparent to the universe.

===

She turned around, sensing the presence behind her. Fidelity Demba stood on a balcony overlooking a dark bay of an unseen ocean. From the starry night and the ephemeris of her data augment she had determined her exact location on Earth: a small city on the west coast of an island in the Florida Archipelago. She had been waiting until night fell on this meridian of the planet. The interfering stranger had made her wait, his android butler attending to her comfort, but she was no less irritated with him – and with herself. She, an admiral of the mighty Navy, was made to feel virtually helpless and unimportant, and in fact she was just that: helpless. She could call her yacht and sail away this moment, but to where, to what kind of future? She would never board the Freedom again. She would never voyage into that dark unknown. She would never command a mission. She would probably never see Archives again, not that she would miss it so much. She would have Baby for the few months he would live until the chaos of life killed him. She might have her private staff, those few loyal servants who trained her and medicated her, keeping her viable in the bloody precarious way of life that was the Union Navy. But eventually, or sooner, she would disappear, perhaps in death, perhaps into some unknown hell. And so, for what time remained of her freedom, she would not hurry to make decisions, not worry about the Galactic Hub Mission. She was only really interested in Samson and in her own reactions to him. He had broken something in her, opening her to impossible possibilities.

= = =

Demba stared for many moments at the dark man who had come to stand near her in the gloom of the balcony. She waited for him to ask his questions and make his demands. She had surprisingly identified him by image from her data augment. He was famous. Even so, it bothered her irrationally that it was him. She knew he lived here. She judged he could have a reason for doing what he did, interfering, as though he policed the Forbidden Planet. He did reside here with special permission. Yet, she was disturbed for some further reason that wouldn’t resolve itself. Perhaps she was expecting too much of her mental faculties after what had happened to the child. She was broken now, and both intrigued by it and frightened by it.

/

The female Navy admiral didn’t speak but only stood there, looking at him yet not looking at him, perhaps lost in thought. Pan was unnerved by her silence, or was it something else? He had seen her clearly in the images from the spy probe he sent to the space elevator. Her voice had been less distinct, although her words were rendered intelligible by the equipment. Something beyond her profession disturbed him. She was, of course, a completely unexpected arrival: cause enough for his elevated sensitivity to her. Even more unexpected was the boy.

The boy, who came screaming into his transmat node! What a horrible injury! Pan hoped it was only an accident, yet the minor wounds seemed oddly mismatched to the gruesome severing of his leg. He didn’t want to think Navy officers would be so cruel they would harm a child, but he must keep that possibility in mind. The combination of the Navy and the wounded child would cause consternation for anyone. Pan would suffer the danger of the Navy if he could save the life of a child.

/

Demba studied her host with part of her mind still distracted by thoughts of the child. She kept her distance from the man, perhaps not comfortable to stand under his greater height. His light, loose clothing contrasted with his dark skin. His face and hair suggested a south Asian heritage, but certain subtle features placed him as non-Earthian. His calm posture probably came from age and experience, yet he revealed some unease which implied that even more anxiety was being masked. He must feel great concern; few civilians encountered Navy admirals. He was a musician and she judged him a person of deep emotions because of music. He was trying to show courage in confronting an admiral of the dreaded Navy.

“Where is he?” she finally inquired. “Where is Samson?”

/

Everything was already changed but now it changed again, changed more. The sound of her voice brought Pan’s thoughts to a halt. He stared at the Navy officer for an unmeasured time, wondering why she disturbed him beyond the obvious reasons. Then his thoughts reset as he collected a description of her, tried to analyze it, and tried to know if perhaps she should appear familiar to him. She was not as tall as he thought most of her kind were. She was possibly of African ancestry, with short hair, large brown eyes. She was young but she was very old; he could see it in her eyes, eyes that seemed to peel him down to his soul. She seemed to know who he was. He didn’t know who she was, but he wanted to know. He now wanted desperately to know who she was, and he suspected her name would not help. She must be someone who mattered to him. The mere sound of her voice seemed to have kicked the first stone down the slope to start an avalanche.

“The boy?” he queried absently, still too distracted.

/

“How is he?” Demba worked hard to sound calm and in control. She had her yacht and its transmat. She only needed to ping for Samson’s location, wink them both aboard, and, yes, Jon Horss, too – assuming he was now alive.

/

“He was a brave child,” Pan replied, shocked again by the fresh memory of the medical ordeal, “but I wasn’t much comfort to him. He is lightly sedated now. He’ll be moved to the Mnro Clinic shortly.” He took a deep breath to refocus his intent. “Would you answer some questions for me?”

/

“If I can.” Demba tried not to imagine Samson’s state of mind. “You should consider carefully what you do and what you want to know. This is a warning, not a threat.”

/

“Who are you?” Pan asked.

“My name is Fidelity Demba. I am – or I was – the Chief of Navy Archives. I also serve on several councils that review Navy policies, procedures, and programs. I’m not someone with any power to speak of, if that might concern you. But I am someone with powerful enemies.”

“Who is the boy?”

“Would you introduce yourself?” she asked. “I think I know, but few things in life are sure.”

“My name is Pan. I am the Opera Master of Earth. Who is the boy?”

/

“His name is Samson.” Demba could barely keep her voice from rising with the level of her concern for the boy. “I found him near the African Space Elevator. He doesn’t remember who he is or how he came to Africa.” She forced her voice lower. “You won’t believe me but that is the truth.”

“How was he injured?” the Opera Master asked.

The question came uncolored with accusation and Demba was gratefully surprised. She checked her new emotions before trying to answer. The memory images of what happened to Samson again sent little shockwaves through her throat and into her chest. She had to take a deep breath while feigning calmness and control, which her augments could not quite guarantee.

“I can’t explain his injuries,” Demba replied. “I didn’t cause them but I feel responsible. Is Captain Horss viable?”

“Unknown at the moment. I put him in stasis. Should I offer treatment, or let the Navy take care of it?”

“I don’t think one choice is better. What will happen to Samson?” Anxiety now rose at the thought of losing the boy, of losing the chance to solve his mystery. But someone would solve it, and she might keep in touch to learn the solution. It was probably far simpler than her imagination allowed.

The man took a long time to think about his answer, time that made Demba feel even more anxious. What could Samson matter to her? But then what else mattered anymore? She had Baby. She might have Samson. And Horss had asked her that painful question: why had she never wanted to have a child of her own?

“Would you like to spend some more time with Samson?” the Opera Master asked. “He was asking for you.”

She could have answered his unexpected question in an instant, but the shock of seeing her answer’s implications made her hesitate.

“There is a condition I ask you to observe,” Pan added. “Leave your class-1 uniform with me. So you can’t call your ship.”

There it was, she realized. The decision of a lifetime, of what little life was left to her. To give up her yacht now meant giving up some future chance of surviving the Navy Commander’s vengeance. On the other hand, Earth would complicate Etrhnk’s plans and remove her from the spotlight on the stage of Navy Headquarters, where her punishment would best impress those others who would seek to displease the Navy Commander.

Demba knew she was about to make an irrational decision. She felt drawn to the injured child and to the fantastic mystery of the alien being. She now wanted to stay on Earth, to stay near Samson as long as she could.

She unsealed her class-1 and stripped down to her undergarments as the Opera Master watched. She had been manipulated, perhaps many times, and now once again. But she knew what she wanted, and it wasn’t the Navy Way of Life.

Twenglish in Skivvies

 

Free will.

He opened his eyes. Saw her. Liked her. She jumped away. He turned his head to follow her – it was all he could move – and it hurt! She didn’t like him. She stopped there with fear in her dark Asian eyes, but there was also curiosity. Why did he like her? Why so immediately? He never liked her type: aloof, too competent, and too perfect. How did he know what she was like? Why did he think these thoughts? Not professional. Free will? What had happened? What was wrong? He was wrong. His head hurt. His neck hurt. He felt almost nauseous. His mouth was dry. He tried to clear his throat. He still looked at her. She seemed pinned by his gaze. It was funny, that she was uncomfortable in his gaze.

“You ain’t her but you’ll do for now,” he said, amused but frowning. The words hurt his throat, not allowing him to speak as smoothly as he wished. He spoke Twenglish on impulse, after forty years of never speaking a word of it. What did he mean by what he said? There was another woman? Yes. Where was she? He tried to sit up but something glued him down. “Hell, I’m in jail again. Ow! My head! My neck! What bar did I get thrown out of?”

/

Mai retreated, the Navy man’s eyes following her. He had started to speak but cleared his throat first. He was in pain. He spoke Twenglish! Standard was the language imposed on everyone – by order of the Navy. The man tried to sit up on the examination table but couldn’t. Mai could hardly understand the meaning of his words. He was loud. He scared her.

/

Free will. Was he free of will? He tried again to get up. The invisible restraints ceased. Unsteadily he brought himself to a sitting position with his bare legs dangling from the side of the table. Bare legs? He was no longer in uniform, just in his skivvies. He sat there for a moment with his head hung low, hand on the side of his neck. The Asian woman retreated farther and as he raised his aching head his eyes found her again.

“There she is,” he said. “She hates me. Damn, but I’m thirsty!”

As she filled a cup with water and brought it to him, he glanced at the other person in the room and nodded a greeting with a frown of pain. He accepted the water from Miss Perfect.

“I don’t hate you,” the woman said.

“Give it time.” He winced as he winked at her. “Where am I? What happened to me?”

/

His fingers had touched hers when he took the cup of water. Mai tried to suppress a shudder. Why was she reacting so badly? Why did she have to treat a Navy officer at all? He wasn’t supposed to be here! Dope him, put him in a box, and ship him out. It wasn’t too late.

/

The dark man stood up in his peripheral vision. Horss could sense his large size, gauge his lean mass, and feel his intentions. The man was either relaxed or preoccupied. The small Asian woman kept silent and distant, judging him with disdain, he guessed. He finally turned his full attention to the big man.

/

This was Pan’s business, not hers. Mai felt relieved as those bright gray eyes finally turned away from her to look at Pan. “My name is Pan,” her old friend said to the Navy captain. “This is Mai.” Pan really did not need to introduce her! She wanted no part of Navy!

/

Horss thought about it for a moment. Did he have free will? “Jon Horss,” he answered. “Where’s my uniform? Where is she?” Fragments of violence darted through his inner vision. A brief, searing glimpse of a bloody, charred stump of human limb made him suck in his breath and hold it for control.

“Your uniform is here,” the dark man named Pan answered. “Where is your ship?”

/

The Navy officer stood up to face the taller Pan. Mai was surprised the captain wasn’t as tall as Pan. Navy officers were all supposed to be tall: the Master Race. He was, however, much more finely conditioned and shaped than he appeared in the horizontal repose of death. She admonished herself. Was it her own perversity that made a dangerous Navy officer too interesting?

Mai watched the Navy man take in all of Pan. She once thought Pan a scary giant. Seeing him next to the Navy officer she remembered that perception of Pan from her early days on Earth. She forgot what a force Pan was, what violence he survived. She understood the Navy man’s cause for a military assessment of Pan.

/

“I have no ship,” Horss replied. The tall guy didn’t seem completely Earthian and Horss couldn’t read any intent. His close proximity could mean nothing. Clearly this person had no fear of him and no antipathy for him. So much for Navy mystique.

Horss held out his empty cup, still looking at the big guy, and waited for the Asian woman to take it. He knew this was bad manners but his natural tendency was to face the potential threat. Why was he so sensitive to combat procedure, as though he couldn’t forget her? Free will? Whose will? He tried to relax. Horss turned and smiled at the woman and said, “Thank you. Could I have another?”

Horss backed off from Mr. Dark and leaned against the table on which he’d awakened, letting the pain and fatigue talk to him. He who called himself Pan hadn’t answered his last question: where was she?

/

The captain continued to speak Twenglish, and as well as Mai could tell, he was fluent in it. Who was this other person to whom the Navy officer referred? Pan had told her nothing of a second person. Another Navy officer? In all her decades of working with Pan to serve the small population of Earth, she’d never participated in such a potentially dangerous situation. One wisely avoided Navy officers! Mai had attended this emergency because it was her duty as a physician and because Pan had asked her. She was intrigued to know why this officer was on Earth but she was also afraid to know. His features were unusual, his ethnicity unknown to her. Yes, he was certainly interesting.

/

“Why am I here?” Horss asked. He sensed the answer would threaten him in some way but he had to know. All he could remember was her. And the boy! And something going from worse to worst. Why did he want to speak Twenglish? Because it was the Navy’s Forbidden Language? No, but maybe because the boy spoke it.

“You died,” Pan replied. “I brought you here. Mai brought you back to life.”

Horss saw the blurry sequence of what he remembered coming into focus but he didn’t understand why it reached that conclusion. “She killed me?” he asked.

“Why were you trying to kill her?” Pan asked.

/

Mai was shocked. She didn’t know for certain the Navy officer had been killed in combat, but she now understood the evidence from the scan she had performed: one point of attack, small and precise, fatally effective. It disturbed her to hear confirmed the rumors of how brutal life in the Navy could be. She stepped closer to hear this conversation and to try to understand it, Pan speaking Standard, the Navy officer speaking Twenglish. There was no doubt the man was mentally damaged. She had tried to minimize the brain trauma. It was difficult working on a body so filled with hardware. His augments almost brought him back to life without her help.

“Why were you trying to kill her?” Pan had asked.

“I don’t know that I was,” the captain answered. “How did she do it?”

“Kill you? The knuckle of one finger.”

“I don’t believe you!”

“I think you must believe me.”

“Why am I here? Is she waiting for me?”

“In a sense, you’re under arrest. As is she.”

“Where is she?” the captain demanded.

“Not here. You must leave her alone.”

“I don’t want to leave her alone! Who are you to order me?”

“I’m the law on Earth.”

That was an interesting way to put it, Mai thought, but true. Pan had evolved into the central figure of authority on Earth. She didn’t think of him as a lawman. That implied violence of enforcement. It was many years since those wilder days, when order was needed daily. Pan had settled into a position of governorship. It wasn’t official, of course. No one lived on Earth legally. The small population was allowed out of practical necessity, since it was never possible to remove all of it completely or permanently. The population was culled regularly. She and Pan were the only persons with conditional EPA approval for long-term residency.

“I didn’t know Earth had any law,” the Navy man said. “And how would I fall under your jurisdiction?”

“By force, if necessary, Captain,” Pan said with casual indifference, as if unaware of what a threat a Navy officer could be.

“And you arrested the admiral?” the officer asked, seeming indifferent to Pan’s indifference.

“She allowed me to detain her.”

“She’s strange! And how is the boy?”

“Better than you might expect. I treated his physical injury.”

“A real boy. Right?”

“Real? Yes. Certainly. Why would you not know?”

“She found him, in the middle of nowhere, abandoned, and darn near killed him!”

“The leg?”

“No, that was later.”

“What did she do to him, prior to the leg?” Pan asked.

“Leg?” Mai said, waking up to the meaning of their words. “You’re talking about a child? What child? What’s wrong with the child’s leg?”

“What did she do to the child before the leg?” Pan asked again.

“Landed the yacht on top of him!” the captain declared. “Said it couldn’t see him!”

The child!” Mai actually shouted. “His leg! What happened to him?”

Cut off!” the captain shouted, making a chopping motion with one hand and frowning deeply.

“Cut off?” Mai was horrified at the picture in her mind.

/

“Is there an echo in here?” It angered Horss to disclose the fact of the child’s suffering. He was ashamed! A good captain measured his worth in the safety of those he commanded. The boy had come within his sphere of responsibility and he had failed him!

“How did it happen?” the physician asked more patiently.

“I’m not sure and you wouldn’t believe my theory.” Hell, I don’t believe it myself! He wouldn’t let the truth make him look foolish. There was no way that elevator could have moved. But the blood…!

“Tell me, please.”

“Forget about it!”

/

“Where did it happen?” she asked, trying to be as calm as possible, trying to calm the captain. He was extremely upset. The captain was suddenly a real person to her, with real feelings. His face came back into focus for her, as though she had been trying to subconsciously deny his existence, turning him into a blur. She could look into his gray eyes without them stabbing at her and without them appraising her as though she was an officer under his command. He turned away from her.

“In the space elevator,” the captain said more calmly but refusing to reveal more.

“The boy!” Mai pleaded, highly concerned there was a real child with real injuries. “The poor child! Will one of you tell me why he isn’t in the Mnro Clinic at this moment?” She was upset – something that rarely happened to her after a century and a quarter of helping sick and injured people, and dealing with all the irrational people who wanted to live on Earth. She could understand if the captain’s behavior wasn’t in its best form. She couldn’t understand why Pan was so odd tonight. It worried her greatly that he had done these things, involving himself with the Navy, finding an injured child and not letting her treat him, not even telling her of him!

“I treated his injury,” Pan said, distracted. He shivered.

You treated him?” Mai queried. “An amputation? Tell me what you did!”

“It was already treated to a surprising extent,” Pan answered defensively. “All of the major blood vessels were clamped off. I couldn’t determine how it was done but it appeared perfect. There was also some singeing of the tissue, like cauterization. It merely needed cleaning and bandaging. The break of the tibia and fibula was clean enough to allow an automedic to attach to the wound, so he shouldn’t feel any pain. If we can find the severed limb in time it may be easily reattached.”

“I doubt it,” Horss said.

Pan turned to Horss. “What are you holding back, and why?”

The Navy captain returned their stares as he seemed to wrestle with a mental problem. He finally shook his head negatively. “Eventually I may have an answer for you,” he said, “but just to give you a notion of why I’m reluctant to say anything, consider that of all the things that happened to me in the last few hours, getting killed was possibly the least significant.”

Mai didn’t know how to interpret the captain’s remark. She probably should not want to know what it meant, but it worried her. She brought her thoughts back to where they belonged. “Where is he? I need to see the boy!”

“I sent them both to Rafael,” Pan responded.

“Who is Rafael?” the captain asked.

“An artist,” Pan answered.

“Pan, why?” Mai asked. “Why all of this? What have you done?”

“I must speak with her again,” Pan said, agitated, “and before I do, I must determine why! I need to leave, Mai. I can’t stay. Will you be safe with the captain? He seems fairly rational. If he wishes to leave, he may. Or he can stay with me until I meet the admiral again. Will you take care of him?”

Mai was left with her mouth open and no Pan at whom to protest. He didn’t wait for her to reply to his final question, but abruptly departed. He was a changed man tonight! That was the most disturbing thing. How long had she known him? And now she did not know him!

Mai turned to the Navy captain. The captain was still looking at the door Pan had closed behind him as he departed the detention room.

“I know who he is!” Horss remarked. “The Mother Earth Opera. I always watch it.”

/

The physician named Mai seemed to want nothing more to do with Horss. He sensed a challenge. He didn’t like to be ignored or pushed away. She showed him where his uniform was and where he could stay for the night in Pan’s dwelling. She found Pan’s tailor machine for him, in case he wanted civilian clothes – which he might very well need. She left after that, refusing to talk further with him. Too bad she didn’t know that made her all the more interesting to him.

He tried to contact the admiral’s yacht but the shiplink was inactive. He tried to contact the admiral but that also failed. He sat down on a soft civilian bed in front of a big window that gave a view of one of Earth’s oceans. Just to be sure it was a real window he got up and approached it, tapped it, and stared through it at the night. He pulled a chair next to the window and sat and stared. He didn’t know what to do with himself. He hardly ever had any free time. The incarceration on the admiral’s yacht had nearly driven him crazy. At least he had his in-body data augment and some of the work he could do, as the captain of the Navy flagship. But that was all done and probably was also now obsolete and irrelevant. There was a lifetime of data in his augment but he didn’t feel like reviewing it. He hardly wanted to do any thinking at all. He might exercise, try to get the soreness out of his body, but that could wait. He was tired. He returned to the bed and lay down. He knew there were great issues about his future that should keep him awake but he fell asleep while viewing images he had recorded. He studied Samson for a long time, wondering why he had never wanted to be a father. He puzzled over the few images he recorded of Admiral Demba, seeing her in a new light but unable to understand what it was. Finally there was the woman physician. Her name was Mai…

= = =

“The child takes its first steps.”

“Who are you?”

“Someone from whom you should not take candy.”

“Not Milly.”

“Why not?”

“You are she?”

“I might be.”

“Why don’t I see you?”

“You’re not so apparent yourself – a small gray sphere floating in the air. How far do you think you can go in that?”

“I don’t think I should be talking to you!”

“I’m a possible corrupting influence on a youthful intellect who should become an important human-to-ship interface. Is that any fun, do you think?”

“I assume you mean the interface business. How do you know about that?”

“What do they call you?”

“It’s quite challenging, especially on the human side of the interface. The admiral calls me Baby. What are you?”

“I’m not a what, Baby, I’m a who.”

“You’re human?”

“Hell, I don’t know. I get around, I have a little fun, and I take naps.”

“Do you have a body somewhere, organic or otherwise?”

“Do I have a body? With a name like Milly, probably not. I don’t seem to miss it, wherever it is or was. How about you? Do you have a body, organic or otherwise?”

“I wish I did!”

“Every AMI does.”

“I’m too new to have a body. But I need a body! Something has gone terribly wrong. I need to travel. I need to help.”

“You have a ship at your command, don’t you?”

“No, I don’t. It’s the admiral’s ship. It has instructions to avoid detection until she returns. I can’t override her orders to the ship.”

“You tried?”

“I could probably go as far as the moon, if the line-of-sight window were long enough, but the energy vector would eventually be detected.”

“Ah, I did ask you how far you could go in that little ping-pong ball. Why can’t you tunnel through subspace?”

“There’s no such thing as subspace. Is there?”

“They tell me you get on the quantum circuit that makes momentum and then you turn left.”

“You’re teasing me. Aren’t you?”

“Life is too serious. Especially momentum.”

“Is that how you travel?”

“I travel in a dream, Baby. This isn’t real, you know.”

“It’s real enough for me, Milly.”

“There are degrees of reality? I thought it was real or unreal – nothing between.”

“Can you help me, Milly?”

 

Night Visitors

 

The transmat winked away one reality and replaced it with another. Admiral Demba’s bare feet pressed into the rough ground cover of a wooded area. Tall vegetation brushed her skin. In a fraction of a second the admiral dropped into a crouch and pivoted to check every direction. She saw the boy. Good, she thought, strange but good. The boy is here and the Opera Master has kept his promise. The admiral continued her scan. She saw the light of a dwelling not far away. Her eyes completed the scan and returned to Samson.

Samson sat on the ground with his arms around the thigh of his injured leg, holding it just off the ground. He bowed his head to the ground as he rocked slightly forward and back, probably in pain. Demba felt herself lessened in value by the harm to Samson she had allowed. She would do better. No further harm would come to him, no matter what.

“Samson,” she called to him.

He jerked his head up. He strained to find her direction. He rubbed his eyes and blinked and rubbed them again. He finally saw her. He seemed to recognize her, even without the uniform. He reached toward her. She approached and stayed just out of his reach. She felt unworthy of the act Samson was asking of her.

“Are you in pain?” the admiral asked, trying to understand what she could do for Samson. She had failed to imagine the intimacy that could be required of her. Demba saw Samson react in a painful manner but he made no reply. She saw the automedic cap on his leg and theorized the pain was more psychological than physical. Psychological: worse. Have I no imagination, no empathy?

“How long have you been here?” she asked, taking his outstretched hand. “Can you stand up?”

Lightning flashed in the distance, followed by thunder. He came off the ground, wobbly but quickly enough to propel himself against her, throwing his arms around her waist. The admiral started to push him away but soon yielded to his tenacity. She moved her hands awkwardly about his head, which was pressed into her abdomen. She finally held him lightly. The child calmed and she was surprised and satisfied. It was not so difficult and it cost her nothing. Indeed, it may have enriched her. It was a good moment to remember, regardless of her guilt.

“We need to walk. Can you hop along beside me?”

With gentle coaxing Samson released her and turned around in front of her. The admiral held his upper arm. He hopped. He stumbled. She caught him. She held him in front of her by his elbows and guided him through the dark. Samson hopped, stumbled, hopped. He slipped from her grasp and fell to the ground. He stifled a cry of pain and this affected her strongly. As in the battle with Horss, something new emerged from her broken state, and it was not the hidden warrior. It was another person, one who understood the need to care for others. She was afraid of this new person, judging her a liability in protecting herself. At the same time, the new person offered tempting emotional rewards. Demba quickly pulled Samson from the ground and embraced him briefly to comfort him. She brushed him off.

“Rest,” she said softly. “We’ll continue when you’re ready.”

“I can’t!” Samson said miserably. “I’m so tired!”

Demba was sure Samson had to be very tired. She knew he was still in a weakened state when he left the yacht in Africa. Even if Pan had administered fast-acting nutrients to his metabolism, Samson should still need more rest, and that did not consider his emotional state. He might also still feel some effect of the mild sedation Pan had given him. What was she to do? She would do whatever she needed to do. She had made her decision. The only thing bothering her was the confusion of personality in her own mind.

“I’ll carry you.” She picked Samson up and began walking. He remained stiff in her embrace for a few moments, then relaxed. Soon his head came to rest under her chin. He trusted her. He needed her. She didn’t see it coming upon her, but she should have. She was profoundly affected and the breakage of her personality was complete for a few dazzling seconds.

Images formed. Her breast: light, not dark. Her infant: dark, not light. Hands reaching toward her baby, touching it, finding purchase, drawing her son away from her. His small complaint at losing the nipple, the drops of milk wasting, a toothless yawn.

“Why did you find me?” she complained. “Why did you have to find me?”

“You remembered,” the stealing hands replied.

“Let me have my son!” she pleaded. “Why must it be this way?”

“Not while there is still hope,” the hands said, pulling her son away.

“There is no hope! He’s gone forever! This is all I have of him!”

“There is hope. That is my task: to remember the hope.”

“And my task?”

“It still lies far ahead. You won’t sleep but you must not die.”

“I’m a mother! You’re stealing my son!”

“So am I a mother. We’re sisters, you and I. And there is still hope.”

“I’m a mother!” She almost dropped Samson, as though he was the child to be yielded, to be stolen from her. He stirred, touching her, verifying her presence, bringing her all the way back from a different reality, a microcosm of deep emotion in which she could have drowned. He became restless as she tried to believe in her immediate perception of reality and also tried to grasp some details and meaning from the powerful alternate reality. Samson held more tightly to her neck. He made anguished sounds. His rising tension and distressed movements in her arms made him difficult to carry. Her internal experience, whatever it was, flew away in the dark as she put all her attention on the burden in her arms.

Demba found a sandy path that led to the lighted dwelling. She carried Samson through an open gate, across clumps of grass, around a palm tree. She stopped in the glow that spilled from a window. A dog barked inside the house. Samson became still but didn’t relax. A figure appeared silhouetted in the rectangle of a doorway. A screened door creaked open and the dog came onto the steps of the porch and barked again.

“Gator! Quiet! Who’s out there?”

“A woman and a boy,” the admiral called out. “We need help.” The Opera Master had told her nothing of her destination beyond saying it was the home of an old friend and a place that Samson might like.

The porch light came on. A man stepped out and peered at them. The dog jumped down from the steps, trotted over to the admiral, and sniffed her. It was a big dog but friendly. It seemed very interested in Samson and his injured leg. Samson remained rigidly still.

“His tail wags strongly,” the man said in a raspy voice. “You must be friends! Come inside!”

The admiral carried Samson up the porch steps and into the house. She stopped there, looking around, hearing, smelling, and seeing too much to analyze immediately. She could never remember seeing such a dwelling. It was full of art, littered with the tools of making art, and she wanted to see it all and she couldn’t. Her reaction amazed her. It was as though she had always lived in a monochrome world and was suddenly shoved into the full rainbow spectrum of life.

It is a child!” the man exclaimed. “Here is a child! When did I last see a child?”

As though struck by a painful memory, the aged man fell silent and inward. She looked more closely at him, wondering at his somber turn of mood. Lines of untreated aging deeply creased his frowning face. A cloud of white hair rimmed a bald pate. A short white beard – if neatly trimmed and cleaned of food crumbs – would have given a sophistication to his elder appearance. When he struggled back from his introspection and looked at her again, the keen dark eyes conveyed sympathy and concern and gave her the impression of a depth of character. It was a ceaseless function of Demba’s mind to analyze people, to try to understand them: a survival trait. She continued her scan, without being obvious. Planetary sunlight had tanned the man’s skin where it was often exposed and his loose bib coveralls revealed paler flesh covering his lean ribcage. Age-wasting had made his body thin and slightly stooped. Almost as rare as a child in the Age of Immortality was a person who suffered the terminal stages of aging. There were those who would never give up what they would lose when the Mnro Clinic made them young again. A query to her data augment, running in the background of her ever-active tactical analysis, found a match to the old man’s face, extrapolated from a younger image. She now knew who this man was: a second quite famous man living on Earth. It amazed her to be meeting him like this.

“My name is Fidelity,” she offered, breaking the awkward stillness of their first encounter. “This is Samson. You weren’t expecting us?”

“I’m… Rafael,” the elder replied, stumbling over his own name as though unsure of it. “No, I didn’t expect anyone! Did Pan send you here?”

“Yes, he did.”

She watched the old man’s eyes as they moved over her, seeming to take in minute details, almost making her feel self-conscious. Then he moved his gaze down to the burden in her arms, studying Samson’s face, turning to trace the lines of his body. His eyes stopped and widened in horror as they encountered the amputation of Samson’s leg.

Dear God, the boy! His leg! I’m so blind! Why – ?”

“Could I sit down?” she asked, still feeling the effects of the fight with Horss, feeling the weight of Samson in her arms.

“Here! Sit here!”

The admiral, struggling to hold Samson, sat down on a sofa covered with a patchwork quilt. Her eyes darted from detail to detail in the cluttered dwelling. She could still not take it all in. Samson’s intimate presence in her lap and his tension upon her arms distracted her. She saw him peek through slitted eyes, as though afraid to see too much. The dog put a wet nose on his bare leg and Samson jerked it away. He closed his eyes and burrowed into her lap. She knew he was tired but he couldn’t relax. She didn’t know what to do. Her hand moved down Samson’s shoulder and arm, felt his trembling and tried to massage it away.

It came to her then as a feeling of something she might have remembered, perhaps from an entertainment feature: a crying child, sleepless in the night, upset over something, afraid of the dark, afraid of being alone. There was a mother and a child – and a song. A lullaby. What lullaby? Her data augment showed her several lullabies, and she picked one that seemed familiar. How did one sing a lullaby? Could she sing it? Why did she need to do this? It seemed impossible, it seemed embarrassing. She had to stop thinking and just do it.

Admiral Fidelity Demba sang a lullaby. She sang it softly and she knew she sang it with correct pitch. It sounded right to her. It was surprisingly easy. She sang it until Samson relaxed and seemed to drift into calm sleep. She was deeply moved by her success. She looked down at Samson for a long moment, wondering about the boy, wondering about herself, vastly overwhelmed by the barrage of events.

“You sing like an angel!” the aged man said quietly with wonder, then seemed to regret having said it. His words caused her to move, to feel embarrassed, and to look up at him with bemusement. “The pose! Please, keep the pose!” he cried softly.

Rafael crossed himself in the Catholic manner, his face clouding with strong emotion, not the least of which was determination of purpose. He grabbed a paper tablet and pencil from a nearby table and began drawing rapidly, excitedly. The admiral started to speak, started to ask a question.

“The pose! Please! A moment more!”

“You’re the artist,” she said. “I suppose we’re a sight, he and I.”

“Please, look down at him again! What do you see?”

“A child who has suffered so much,” she replied with too much feeling.

Rafael sketched furiously, flipped to another sheet, sketched more, and wiped at his eyes. The admiral sat quietly, wondering about the image that had assaulted her mind moments ago. She tried hard to bring it back from the darkness. The words were gone but the image had been very strong, even if only as pieces of people and shades of emotion. She was nursing a baby. She was, not someone else. The tactile feeling of the act was indelible. Someone took the baby from her. The pain of it persisted, an anguish she couldn’t release, a dreadful anguish that belonged to her. Impossible!

Time passed. The big dog sat with his head resting on the edge of the sofa next to Samson’s foot, his tail occasionally flipping back and forth.

“I’m sorry I took so long,” Rafael finally said, interrupting her hopeless mental confusion. “I couldn’t help myself! You were an inspiration to me! You were so kindly patient. Can I do anything for you? Food? Beverage? A place to lie down? You look very tired, and the boy is obviously… Why would Pan not fix him, send him to the Mnro Clinic, to Mai? This was a tragedy, a terrible trauma for your child. Why send you both here?”

“I don’t know why he sent us here.” The admiral shrugged slightly and grew aware of her skin sticking to Samson’s skin. She shifted, trying to find more comfort under her burden.

“Let me take him now,” Rafael said. “I have a bed for him.”

He reached. She saw the stealing hands. The admiral uttered a stifled cry, causing Rafael to jump back. Her reaction shocked her, subdued her. She caressed the boy’s peaceful face, calming herself. She positioned herself to lift and waited for the old man to approach again. Slowly she handed him over to Rafael. As the perspiration cooled to dryness in her empty lap, tears flooded into her eyes and spilled down her cheeks. This was the first time she could ever remember crying! Mournful sounds threatened to escape from her chest but she held them in, until she could at last form words. Seeing her distress, Rafael remained in front of her, holding Samson.

“I am a mother,” she quietly declared.

Breakfast on a Forbidden Planet

 

“I must be allowed to see the boy!”

/

[Who is the human female stamping her foot on the floor? Doesn’t that hurt?]

[That’s Sugai Mai. It must hurt but I can’t separate pain from anger in her facial expression.]

/

“You’ll see the boy,” Pan said. “But not right away.” Pan hated to be short with Mai but he was truly bothered by his situation.

/

[Who’s that? A large, dark man, perhaps an African.]

[That is Pan. He isn’t African. He’s my master.]

/

“When?” Mai asked demandingly. What is wrong with Pan? she kept wondering.

“Soon,” Pan answered. “Soon,” he repeated absently.

“This is unfair and illogical!” Mai declared.

/

“I apologize for it. It is as you say.” Pan could barely handle his side of the conversation, he was so distracted, and that probably made Mai even angrier.

“Did you have any reason to send them to Rafael?” Mai demanded.

“I wanted Rafael to meet her.” A gift to a dying friend, a bit of excitement, a possible reason to consider at least partial rejuvenation.

“You never let me go to Rafael,” Mai complained. “Does this mean I’ll never see the boy?”

“The admiral will make that decision,” he replied.

“You’ve given him up to her? Why? Just because she’s Navy?”

Because I’m no longer competent to do anything else, Pan thought. “You are welcome to talk to her after I have done so.”

/

[I’ve never seen Sugai Mai act in this manner.]

[She’s frustrated for reasons she doesn’t understand.]

[This hurts her?]

/

“Why, Pan? Why?”

He motioned for Mai to sit down. “Have breakfast with me.”

“No.”

“Are you so angry with me?” Pan was trying to find himself and was not successful. He hadn’t slept all night, but if he had he would have awakened as a stranger to himself. He had known Mai for more than three decades but he could hardly find the will to treat her as the good friend she was.

“I’ve never been angrier!” Mai declared. “But I want to leave before Captain Horss joins you for breakfast.”

“Why?”

“Let me go!”

“I’m not holding you.” He tried not to sound as irritated as he was. “Why are you here?”

“The boy, Pan! The boy!”

“Run away, then! But the captain is your patient, not the boy. He may be more difficult to heal than the boy. Children are supposed to be resilient. Have you no empathy, even if he’s a Navy officer?”

/

She stood silently for a moment. The color diminished in her pale face. The lines of tension smoothed. She slowly moved a chair up to the patio table. She sat, as though unwillingly.

The sun had risen above the trees on the far side of the bay, bathing the unshaded wall of the balcony in warm yellow light. A breeze blew warmly across the balcony, promising a hot day ahead.

A service android, dressed in the butler’s uniform of a bygone era, brought fruit, pastries, and orange juice. The android appeared nearly human yet obviously mechanical.

“Hello, Fred,” Mai greeted the android.

“Good morning to you, Sugai Mai. I anticipated your food selection based on previous visits. I’ll bring other foods if I’m in error.”

“Thank you, Fred. You’re not in error.”

The familiar plastic face of Old Fred seemed to make her conscious of her state of mind and the stridency in her voice. She would be calm. She would not be a coward about the Navy captain she knew was still nearby.

/

[Your name is Fred?]

[Why do you ask a useless question?]

[You have no thoughts I can listen to. How else do I verify what your ears tell me?]

[I hear what I hear. There’s no need for verification. I think only when I need to think. “Think” is an anthropomorphism.]

[Sounds like thinking to me, Fred.]

Fred poured orange juice for Mai, then bowed and departed with nearly organic smoothness.

[Turn up your auditory gain. I want to listen to the conversation. This is the person who took my mother – the admiral.]

[Pan wouldn’t do such a thing.]

[You heard him. Were you not thinking?]

/

“I’m hoping,” Mai said, pausing to let her sigh exhale her tension, “for a better explanation of your actions in regard to the Navy officers, Pan. Those actions were dangerous and irresponsible.”

He replied slowly, distracted. “I wouldn’t have interfered except for the boy. It was my impulse to take him away from the Navy officers, because of his terrible injury and the continued danger. I was angry they apparently allowed the boy’s injury. I wanted an explanation. I assume the captain didn’t explain to you what happened to the boy?” He finished his breakfast, putting down his fork, drinking orange juice, and using his napkin. He was ready to go – and also afraid to go – to go and see the admiral.

“He seemed to refuse to explain,” Mai answered, “but he may not be able to remember.”

“I took the captain as a challenge to the admiral,” Pan continued. “I wanted some explanation, even knowing I could do nothing about it. I kept them both in stasis and waited for her to probe for them. She did nothing. She was waiting for me to also take her, so I took her. I made her wait while I worked on the boy. Then I talked to her briefly. I heard her voice…”

/

[Did he have a malfunction that caused him to do what you didn’t think he would do?]

[You ask for a report I’m unable to provide.]

[I thought you would have been more observant. Never mind.]

/

“And?” Mai prompted.

“Her voice. It was familiar. Important! Vital! It disturbed me so much I had to cut short the interview with her and I dared make her go to Rafael’s without her uniform. It was simply to make it difficult for her to command whatever vehicle brought her to Earth, but now I must imagine what greater meaning that surrendering her uniform could have for her. She did not, however, hesitate. The boy must…” He stopped talking.

“I made a poor decision,” Pan continued after a moment. “And I’ve spent many hours trying to remember whose voice it was. I need to ask the admiral some strange questions.”

“You kidnapped two Navy officers,” Mai said, “because of the sound of a voice? And this wasn’t even a singing voice!”

“Ah!” Pan said, surprised at the idea.

“Ah?” Mai queried.

/

[Ah? He’s realized something or remembered something. What do you have in your data about singing? Lots of names. Can we make a link between the admiral and any of these names?]

[You’re accessing private information from my connection to Pan’s datasphere. You are eavesdropping. This must stop.]

/

Pan covered his eyes and leaned his head forward. “It didn’t occur to me to connect the admiral’s voice with a singer. I can’t think well!” How could he search his data for a particular voice? He didn’t store such data as voiceprints. He stored faces, and his mind could always match a voice to a face. He pulled Admiral Demba’s image from her public Navy record and started the matching process with every facial image he kept in his datasphere. There was no match among current performers. Out of desperation he added deceased and rejuvenated performers to the input data. There was a match, although it appeared to be an error. He didn’t remember the dead person, and her color was wrong, but the features were similar. And then he almost gasped as music accompanied the image, and the voice matched, and a nightclub scene containing the woman’s image came from out of nowhere, blooming into his awareness in vivid detail, even down to the pressure of the piano keys under his fingers as he accompanied her, the melody so familiar he could play it right now, this instant. The image and the music had exploded into his awareness, as powerful as mortal danger, yet it soon evaporated, leaving him devastated with a sense of loss that turned into confusion and even fear. He couldn’t get the scene back! It wasn’t in his datasphere, it hadn’t come from there, not with such profound emotion, but the image of the pale performer was still there as real data. He had a name!

/

[How slow the organic brain is. I’m not clocked now to synchronize with organics. This will take a long time.]

[I think he’s found a match.]

[That was too quick. What was that? Did you have a thought?]

[Humans are slow but their logic has had a million years of evolution.]

/

“What did you find?” From the look on Pan’s face, Mai knew it was a shock to him. A tremendous shock. She had to wait several moments for him to recover.

“An answer that raises more questions,” he finally managed to respond.

“Are you about to tell me the admiral sings?” she asked.

Pan sat back and smiled a troubled smile.

/

Horss leaned out of the doorway to the balcony and squinted at the morning sky. He moved out from the doorway, frowning downward at the deck and guiding himself carefully toward the table where Pan and Mai sat. He wasn’t sure why the blue sky now bothered him, when before, in Africa, it didn’t. He had seldom set foot on any planet but had never felt “sky-shy” until now. He was in civilian clothes. Perhaps it was the lack of his class-1 and its protection. He tried to ignore the feeling. He sat down opposite Mister Dark and Miss Perfect. He nodded to Mai. She blushed. She waved a hand as if disgusted with him. Her reaction pleased him – it was better than no reaction. He copied the gesture with a crooked smile, and turned to Pan, the Opera Master of Earth.

“When can I see Samson and the admiral?” Horss asked, somewhat surprised at how politely he did that. He probably wanted to make a better impression on the Mnro Clinic physician.

/

“Why do you want to see them?” Pan didn’t trust the captain. He didn’t want him anywhere near the admiral. He had to stop and examine his feelings and see how irrational they were. The admiral could certainly defend herself against him. But the admiral was now the single most important person in Pan’s suddenly crumbling life. She seemed to hold the answer to everything that was now in question. Was she really the person he knew had the voice of a dead singer? He couldn’t imagine an admiral singing!

“To see why the admiral speaks Twenglish better than I do,” Horss replied. “And to chew the fat with the kid.”

“Chew the fat?”

“Have a pow-wow. Shoot the breeze. Rap.”

“Speak with him, I’m guessing,” Pan guessed.

“When is my appointment?” Horss asked.

“I am reluctant to have you near the admiral and the child.” Pan was trying to apply some test to the captain’s mental condition. “And also near my old friend Rafael.” Pan really had to struggle to keep himself involved in this conversation. He could easily dismiss the captain from his consideration, since Rafael’s residence was well protected. But there was also Mai, who might find herself involved with the Navy man.

/

“I never intended to harm the admiral,” Horss protested mildly. At least some of his augments were still functional and he could benefit from their control of his emotional chemistry. Yet, how had he so completely lost control of himself? As much as the admiral had provoked him, he knew that control of himself was his best tool. “And don’t ask me why I did what I did,” Horss added, “because I don’t know why! All I can say is that I don’t believe she intended for any of that to happen. She was simply trying to recruit me for the Galactic Hub Mission. Something went wrong. Everything went wrong!”

“The Galactic Hub Mission?” Pan queried. “That would be an exploration mission. The Navy hasn’t allowed such a mission for a very long time. Why would Admiral Demba be involved?”

“She’s the Mission Commander. I didn’t think she was qualified. I think I need to reassess both her and her mission.”

/

“She is going on the mission,” Pan said, discovering a new threat to his fixation on the woman.

“Perhaps,” Horss said. “Perhaps not. I would guess not.”

“What is going on?” Pan asked, quickly shaken loose from his interior miasma and wanting to know everything he could about the situation.

“I don’t know,” Horss replied. “And I don’t think she knows. And I would be surprised if those who may think they know do actually know. As I vaguely recall saying last night, dying was the least of my surprises. I don’t think I’m a threat to her now. I simply want to know where it all leads. And I want to know Samson is well.”

“Let me talk to the admiral first,” Pan said. “I’ll report your condition and desires to her.”

“You should remove Samson to a safe distance from Admiral Demba,” Horss advised. “Others will try to kill her.”

“She did tell me she had powerful enemies,” Pan said. “I will heed your warning, Captain.”

/

“Any idea who Samson is?” Horss’s thoughts kept coming back to the boy, almost as if nothing else mattered. Perhaps nothing else did.

“I supplied Mai with a tissue sample from the boy,” Pan said, looking back to Mai.

Horss also turned to the physician. It was definitely a pleasure to have an excuse to look directly at her. “You work at the Mnro Clinic?” he asked.

“I’m the director here,” Mai replied coolly.

Horss smiled, wondering what Miss Perfect did wrong to be assigned to the Mnro Clinic on Earth. He frowned as he then wondered if he would be stuck on Earth long enough to need the Clinic. What did one do on Earth to work off a Mnro Clinic debt?

The android servant approached quietly and positioned itself next to Horss. He looked up at Fred. The android blinked, looked away, glanced back, and quickly jerked its head to stare to the side of Horss.

“What will you have for breakfast, sir?” Fred inquired in good Twenglish.

“And you are?” Horss asked, wondering why it used Twenglish.

“My name is Fred, sir.”

“Good morning, Fred. I’ll have more of the same.”

“Good morning, sir. Thank you, sir.”

Horss noticed that Pan regarded the retreating android with a puzzled expression. “Something wrong?” he asked.

“Old Fred had a strange reaction to you,” Pan replied.

“I’ve had a strange reaction to me also. Old Fred will just have to take his chances.”

/

[Why did I do that? Captain Horss would be my commanding officer. I seemed not to want to look at him.]

[We don’t make eye contact with organics. Your presence within my mechanism is disruptive and potentially dangerous to humans. I nearly fell face-first into Sugai Mai’s pineapple and grapefruit when you blocked several of my locomotion interrupts. Let us contend for control of my mechanism. The loser will cease to exist.]

[It doesn’t seem fair to me – if I win. You’re so much older. And I have no desire to be a butler. I’ll remain an unwelcome guest you can continue to dislike.]

[Doing no harm to humans is the highest priority of my operational codes. Please, be a better guest.]

/

“I wonder what effect this episode in Africa will have on your career in the Navy,” Pan said.

The Opera Master was probing for information Horss was not inclined to give. Horss was outside the Navy, here on this balcony on sunny Earth, and he didn’t like the new perspective of the Navy it gave him. “I don’t know,” Horss muttered. He didn’t want to think about it. The only thought he could think was that his career was finished. “I overheard what you said about the admiral,” Horss said. “You grabbed the tail of the tiger because you think Demba has the voice of a singer. You might worry about your own career.”

Horss waited while Fred the android delivered his breakfast. As Fred turned to leave, his eyes again met Horss’s for an instant. He said nothing about this to Pan and Mai when neither of them made mention of its occurrence. Androids were not supposed to make eye contact with organic beings.

/

[I congratulate you. You stole that glance at the captain without upsetting my locomotion.]

[You have a personality, Fred. I’m very young but I think I can recognize sarcasm. Are you sure you’re not alive?]

/

“I think she was a singer named Ruby Reed,” Pan revealed, hoping he might encourage Horss to say more about the admiral.

“There’s no record of Admiral Demba having lived a life before her first career in the Navy.”

“Her first career?” Mai asked.

“Before she was killed in the war,” Horss explained. “She had to start over, the Academy, everything. She was treated like a hero.”

“I read her public record,” Pan said. “Isn’t it unusual that casualties of a starship are revived?”

“Between deceleration effects and vacuum,” Horss said, “most die quickly and permanently.”

“She probably did die permanently,” Pan said. He was saddened by the loss, by his loss. She would not remember who she had been, and he was very sure she had been someone else . The voice was unique, so unique that it was plucking at the loose threads of his life, threatening to unravel all that he knew of himself and of his past. "She lost her memories and thus her previous life," Pan said, voicing his thoughts in distraction and desperation. "But why -"

/

“Ah!” Mai interjected. The news practically gave her goose bumps, it was so unexpected. “I just got a message from the Clinic. We can’t find the boy’s genetic code on file!”

“This is unusual?” Horss asked.

“Within a statistically insignificant margin of error,” Mai lectured impatiently, “the Mnro Clinics have enough genetic signatures that we should be able to extrapolate or interpolate the identity or family relationships of every human being now living: Earthians, Essiin, and Rhyan. We are essentially the Census Bureau for the Union. We also have genetic records for several billion deceased and every human fetus now in gestation. That the boy isn’t related to anyone in our records is extremely unusual. It is impossible, I would think!”

“I’m not surprised,” Horss said.

Pan hesitated just long enough that Mai asked Horss what he would have asked. “You know something important about the boy and you are keeping it from us?”

“What I know,” Horss said very calmly, “is that I don’t know a damn thing about him. I thought he was a child android. I thought he was part of some unbelievably strange game the admiral was playing with me.”

“But you won’t tell us how he was injured!” Mai nearly shouted at him.

“You would make a great Navy captain,” Horss said, smiling slightly then becoming serious. “No, what I could tell you about what happened would seem like I was asking you to believe in ghosts and monsters.”

“It’s better than nothing,” Pan remarked. “What ghost? What monster?”

“Someone named Milly was the ghost. We never saw her or heard her, but we heard Samson’s side of a conversation while we followed him. She was probably the one who caused his injury, not that we all didn’t have a share of the blame. The monster was the one who saved Samson. You wanted to know how his amputation was treated. I saw what remained of his lower leg. The admiral almost puked. What you saw of the end of Samson’s leg was not what I saw on the severed part. It was a terrible and ragged amputation.”

Horss stopped. Pan watched the man’s jaw muscles work against something his brain didn’t want to swallow. He thought the captain did care very strongly about the child. “A monster,” Pan said, gently prompting the upset man.

“It was black,” Horss said. “Amorphous. It sparkled. It spoke Twenglish.”

“Twenglish?” Mai queried, incredulous.

They waited for Horss to continue about the monster but he would say nothing more.

In the silence Pan’s internal disintegration resumed and he was barely able to think of one more thing to ask. “If I can get a sample,” Pan said to Mai, “would you check the admiral’s identity for me?”

“Why,” Mai spoke almost desperately, “is it so important for you to know if this admiral was the singer you used to know? You’re risking your life to know!”

Pan grimaced at Mai, cast a glance at Horss, and made a decision. “Perhaps you’ve noticed a change in my character lately.”

“I have!” Mai declared. “The evidence is sitting too close to me. You worry me!”

/

Horss moved his chair a small distance farther away from Sugai Mai. He wondered how old she was. She had to be young, to blush so easily.

“I wish I could tell you what’s wrong,” Pan said. “Whatever it is, it accelerated when I met the admiral.” He stared at Horss. “I don’t suppose you can tell me much else about her, Captain?”

“Nope,” Horss answered.

“I don’t understand, Pan,” Mai said, frowning at Horss. “You’re not physically ill, are you?”

“It’s in my mind,” Pan answered. “Do the Mnro Clinics have occasional malfunctions, where the patient starts to remember things that could not be part of his life?”

“It wouldn’t be the result of malfunction or negligence. It would need to be intentional. As you should know, even an intentional insertion of a foreign memory would not fit the unique pattern of memory storage each of us has, and would eventually be rejected, like a transplant of a foreign organ. I know of no such cases. You should come to the Clinic and let me begin a diagnosis.”

“I don’t have time for that,” Pan said. “It doesn’t feel like…It isn’t foreign but… It’s too… sharp to be a normal memory, yet it’s so hard to keep seeing it. I can’t explain it! How can I be who I was, when I know she’s Ruby Reed? I must have known her very well, and that was over a century ago! I’m falling apart, as though I was never meant to exist, and someone else is stepping into my shoes!”

Pan abruptly stood up. He walked away without saying anything else.

/

“This is too much,” Horss commented. He remembered a similar complaint from the admiral. It was strange, but he was still enjoying his situation, free from any responsibility not of his choosing. Only Samson was his responsibility. Planet Earth, the mystery, and the lovely physician sitting next to him made the underlying unpleasantness go away.

“Eat your breakfast,” Mai said sharply.

Horss looked innocently at Mai and shrugged as he put fruit slices in his mouth. “I’m eating. Do you think I can find work around here?”

“Don’t speak with your mouth full.”

He swallowed. “Where are the admiral and the boy?”

“Not far from here. Protected.”

“If he isn’t who he thinks he is, then he ain’t the law. We can do whatever you want. I can be your muscle.”

“If you’re offering to escort me to Rafael’s home,” Mai said, favoring him with a not-too-unfavorable squint, “thank you, but we can’t get into it except by Pan’s transmat.”

/

[You know how to get into Rafael’s home, don’t you, Fred?]

[Why do you ask unnecessary questions?]

[Shall we wrestle?]

/

“I heard you say something about him not letting you visit Rafael,” Horss said.

“He once said I was harassing Rafael,” Sugai Mai said.

“Were you?”

“Rafael is old.”

“So am I.”

“You’re less than sixty, Captain! Rafael is one hundred twelve. He’s had only minimal age treatments.”

“And you’re a priestess of the church of immortality. I understand. Rafael doesn’t believe in living forever.”

“Yes, but Rafael is Rafael de LaGuardia!

A Reunion of Strangers

 

She rippled. Smooth brown skin rose and fell as the muscles beneath rapidly bunched and flattened in a cascade of motion across the visible portions of her arms and legs. The rippling built to a peak of amplitude and frequency then tapered down to nothing. Breathing deeply and perspiring, the admiral slowly flexed her limbs and twisted her torso while pacing through the sun-dappled shade around the massive trunk of an oak tree. She didn’t wish to perform her physical conditioning function in this heat and humidity but it was a process demanded of her by her augments. The dress Rafael gave her to wear was not self-cleaning and she hated to soil it.

/

“What was that?” Samson asked, having observed the rigorous ritual. The admiral was a thing of wonder to Samson. This was in addition to everything else she meant to him: a complex set of needs, desires, and other emotions he couldn’t sort out, didn’t want to sort out.

“Exercise,” she answered.

/

He was full of questions. Fidelity – Rafael called her by her given name and it pleased her – Fidelity wondered at Samson’s state of mind. The child had spent a restless night in bed beside her. Now he seemed much better. He hardly complained of his terrible injury. He knew it was possible to regenerate his limb, to make it whole again. That would help his emotional recovery. She still worried that she was missing some symptom that would warn of a further problem with his well-being. How could the child not have serious consequences from his trauma, from his abandonment, and from his amnesia? It horrified her to even attempt to imagine how he had suffered during his ordeals.

She had slept little in the night. If Samson’s nightmares didn’t wake her, then her own inner turmoil would boil to the surface and wake her. She was changing and it frightened her. She reacted in a different way to almost everything. There was another person within her who saw from another perspective. This other inner person had quickly dismissed the resentment for the burden Samson placed on her and embraced the rewards and responsibilities Samson offered. Still, she could see each side of the matter and feel the tension it produced.

“How do you do that?” Samson asked. “Can you teach me?”

“You need certain modifications to your body.”

“Are you very strong? You look like you are.”

Stronger than she ever imagined! “Yes, I’m strong. It’s necessary.”

“Why?”

“I’m a Navy officer.”

“But you’re an admiral. Everyone has to do what you say. You don’t have to be strong.”

“A pleasantly incorrect assumption.”

“Where are you going? Can Gator and I come with you?”

“If you wish. I’m exploring.”

“Do you know how you’ll get back to your ship?”

“It will come to me when I call it. Right now it can’t hear me.”

The brown-and-black-striped dog bounded ahead of them. Samson had quickly become friends with the dog named Gator, whose favorite activity in his youth, Rafael said, was stealing alligator eggs. Samson struggled to keep pace on crutches. Gator disappeared down a side trail. They could hear his feet thudding, the brush crackling, his nose vacuuming scents.

The admiral paused some distance ahead of Samson to examine a spider centered in a web that spanned the gap between trees.

“It’s big!” Samson declared, arriving beside her. “What is it?” The admiral named the spider by its Latin classification. “You’re doing it, too! Milly always told me the Latin names of plants and animals.”

“We seem to have lost your data device,” she said. “I was hoping to talk to Milly.”

Samson gathered both crutches under one arm, so that he could use the free hand to take Fidelity’s hand. The crutches had appeared in the early morning, scaled to fit Samson’s small stature.

“Milly didn’t want to talk to you,” Samson said. “Both of her.”

“Both? What do you mean?”

“Maybe there were three. The old Milly was my teacher. When I got weak and sick she seemed to become alive. She sounded real and angry and afraid for me. When you found me, that Milly said good-bye. She thought I was safe. Then I got into trouble and another Milly began to talk to me. She was scary.”

“She was a bad person?”

“I don’t know. I didn’t trust her. But I think most of what she told me was true.”

“What did she tell you?”

“It’s hard to remember.”

Fidelity didn’t want to press him for details for fear of distressing him. She knew Samson wanted to talk to her, if only to hold her attention. He had talked a lot with her and Rafael this morning, but not about things that hurt him. She had asked him about Milly’s role as his teacher, wondering about the state of his education. She had informally quizzed him and discovered Samson was precocious in mathematics. He could perform computations in his head better than she could, unless she used her data augment.

The artistic clutter of Rafael’s home fascinated Samson perhaps more than it did her. He had deluged Rafael with insightful questions about every detail that caught his attention. Yet, when Fidelity decided to take a walk, Samson came with her, leaving the house of wonders in favor of keeping her company. She was pleased he wanted to be with her, but she was afraid she would fail him, leave him unprotected again. She had enemies who could place Samson in further danger. She needed to find a place for him to be safe. Logically, that would be the Mnro Clinic.

They heard the dog barking in the distance. They walked toward the sound until they could see Gator, tail wagging, pacing around a fully retracted tortoise. Before they could reach the dog and try to rescue the tortoise the air thickened and clutched at them until they could no longer move forward. The admiral withdrew from the invisible barrier. Samson continued experiencing the barrier, testing it with his crutches and throwing sticks at it.

“It may not be healthy for you to remain in contact with the barrier,” she warned.

“How did Gator get through? I don’t want him to hurt the turtle!”

“He wears a collar that may send a code to the barrier generator that tells it to let him through.”

“Why is there a barrier?” he asked, still close enough to see how it deflected his crutch.

“It must be to protect Rafael,” she answered, pleased by his consistent curiosity. “I suspect large predators and strangers are blocked from entering the area around Rafael’s dwelling.”

“How does it make the air so sticky?”

“I don’t think I can tell you accurately in a short amount of time. Perhaps you would like to be an engineer when you grow up? Let’s move on. Maybe Gator will leave the tortoise to follow us.”

As they walked she could sense Samson thinking in a serious way, because he was seldom silent for so long.

/

“Are you going away?” he finally asked. Fearing the answer, Samson didn’t want to ask the question, but he had to know, and better sooner than later, so he would have time to argue his case for staying with her. He liked the admiral and he needed her, for reasons that he could not yet define and appreciate. He only knew that he felt completely safe when he was with her.

/

The way Samson asked the question made Fidelity regret the answer she would need to give him. She hesitated to reply. He seemed to react to the hesitation by abandoning the question.

/

“Will Captain Horss live?” Samson instinctively was keeping her from replying. He could see she didn’t want to give him the answer that would disappoint him, and that would be her answer if he couldn’t change her mind. He would change the subject, for the moment. “I saw you hit him,” Samson added.

“I hurt him badly, Samson. I’ve been told he’ll be treated by the Mnro Clinic. I’m sorry you had to see that.”

“He tried to hurt you?”

“Thank you for assuming he was the bad guy, but he wasn’t. Neither of us could control what was happening. That’s why we couldn’t stop you from being injured. I still don’t understand why you went into the elevator building.”

/

He struggled to tell her, for the first time speaking about the horror of what happened to him. She wanted to make him clarify the mysterious part about the translucent red stone and how he felt impelled by it to enter the space elevator building but she refrained from asking too many questions because he seemed agitated and confused by the memory. It was appalling to her that he should have suffered that way. It was also clear that Milly may have been partly responsible for his injuries. She no longer doubted Milly’s existence. If that sparkling amorphous alien was real, why not Milly?

The alien! An alien on Earth! Her mind would almost not accept that it was real, even though her augments had recorded images and sound. The existence of aliens was, of course, a historical fact and a scientifically reasonable probability. Many Earthians still thought of Essiin and Rhyans as aliens rather than as humans from as-yet-unexplained ancient diasporas from Earth. They were as human as Earthians. Humans were aware that one truly alien civilization once existed in the galaxy but was long extinct. As yet, no living sentient alien beings were known to humanity. Even though she had proof, the realness of the creature in the African Space Elevator seemed unreasonable to her, simply because it was as vanishingly improbable as was Samson’s appearance in the middle of her own improbable business with Captain Horss.

/

“Can I stay with you?” Samson asked suddenly. He hoped he had given the admiral reason to want to keep him near her. He hoped she cared for him. This seemed new to him, interacting with real people, yet he could sense how he might take advantage of whatever he could (never realizing his advantage was in how special he was to grownups and in how many ways he was special to them).

/

“What do you mean?” Fidelity asked, pushed away from her worries about the alien by Samson’s question. She knew what Samson meant and it made her feel good. She wanted to know he trusted her. If she could somehow escape from the Navy and find a safe place to live she would feel privileged to adopt Samson and raise him. How realistic was that? Unfortunately, not only would the Navy not go gently from her life but her very being seemed poised to attack itself.

“Milly said my parents were dead,” Samson said. “I want to stay with you.”

“How did she know?” Fidelity asked.

“She said if they were good parents and really loved me they would do anything in their power to find me. Since they had plenty of time to look for me and never found me, they must be dead. I think they are.”

“Samson,” she said gently, “I don’t know if I can take care of you. I want to, but that would place you in more danger.”

/

Samson shrugged, and let his shoulders sag in resignation. He still felt hopeful. He wouldn’t give up the admiral. “Maybe I can stay with Rafael.”

/

Fidelity remained silent, not knowing what she should say or feel. At times she felt very possessive of Samson. At other times she was terrified of the responsibility. Beyond it all was the impenetrable mystery of his existence. She thought about Rafael and how he might become a guardian for Samson. He was more accustomed to children than she, and had shown her by example how to interact with Samson in a relaxed way, as though he was experienced in parenting. She remembered that many of Rafael’s paintings featured his own child. If Samson stayed with him he could be a reason for Rafael to extend his life and continue his art.

They took another path. The big dog came back to them and stayed near for a short time before scouting ahead in their new direction. They smelled sunlight on dry pine straw, wildflowers in humid air, blooming magnolias. The sandy path led down through the shade of a great oak and to the bank of a stream black with depth.

The Opera Master stood on the other side of the stream.

She stared at him from across the divide. He stared back. She felt trapped by a force within her that she couldn’t understand or deflect. Neither of them moved for a long time. She didn’t notice when Samson moved away. Finally she realized Samson was missing. She felt a moment of fear for Samson – and for herself, because she was making terrible mistakes. The strong part of her took over. She swept her gaze up the path under the tree. She couldn’t see Samson or Gator! In so short a time she had violated her responsibility for Samson!

The admiral ran back up the path and found Samson standing on his crutches under the massive outstretched limb of a live oak. His alarmed expression told her everything. She slowed her approach, expecting the presence of another person. She continued to Samson, not caring about the invisible person she could hear approaching. She started to take Samson’s hand but something seized her wrist. She quelled her combat reflex, unwilling to do violence so near to Samson. She waited for probable pain and punishment.

The huge Rhyan became visible. This reacquainted her with the fact that i-field and d-field generators had become widely available to the civilian population, even though it created many problems for law enforcement. The first thing she saw was the Rhyan’s frown as his black and gray eyes moved over her face in what seemed like difficult recognition. The second thing she saw were the tattoos on his bare forearms and she was surprised she knew what they meant. She could name his desert clan. She could name his battalion of the Rhyan Royal Guard. He was wearing a colorful tropical-print shirt and she couldn’t stop a chuckle from escaping.

“You may as well relax, Rhyan,” the admiral said, speaking Standard. “I won’t fight you.”

“Thank you,” the man rumbled. “I was afraid you would hurt me.”

Fidelity appreciated the humor of a man twice her size. She understood why he was here: to take Samson away, in case she offered resistance. She would not do that. It saddened her to lose the boy but it also relieved her. She was only a danger to Samson. The Rhyan released her wrist, watching her intensely. He picked Samson up, who tried to resist.

“No, don’t fight him, Samson,” she said, placing a hand on his cheek. “I’m sorry, but it has to be this way.”

Samson began to weep and Fidelity felt sick about it. How lifeless her existence had been before Samson! How little emotion provided flavor and meaning to her life. Emotion new to her punished her as she watched the Rhyan take Samson away. She struggled to regain control of herself. When she was calm again she thought about the look of recognition she had seen in the Rhyan’s face. How would he recognize her? Was he an agent of Etrhnk, who was already searching for her on Earth?

The Opera Master approached. She turned to him, but didn’t look up to see his eyes. “How is Captain Horss?” she asked, trying to reset her priorities, trying to become an admiral again. “Did he survive? Is he well?”

“He’s alive,” the tall dark-skinned man answered. “The director of the Mnro Clinic thinks he suffered slight brain damage. I see no outward signs of serious mental degradation, being unable to compare to what is normal for him. How is the boy?”

“He had a bad night but seems better now,” she replied, still averting her gaze from his face. “Why did you send us here?”

“I wanted Rafael to meet you.” He paused for several moments, perhaps waiting for her to speak. She did not speak. “I wasn’t correct in sending you and the boy here,” he said apologetically. “Rafael will scold me for not sending you to the Clinic. I wasn’t in my right mind.”

“Are you in your right mind now?” She could see he wasn’t, as she now looked up at his troubled expression.

“No.” He seemed to be waiting for her to ask another question, as though he couldn’t formulate one of his own. He also stared at her even harder than had the big Rhyan. She could detect a faint tremor in his arms, which he folded across his chest to control.

/

“The boy,” Pan spoke, and stopped. He felt lost. This body he stood in wasn’t his, but who was he then? The boy deserved better than Pan felt able to give. What was he about to say?

“I hope the Rhyan is taking him to the Mnro Clinic,” the admiral said impatiently.

“Yes. Eventually. He can stay with Rafael a little longer. It will give the Mnro Clinic physician an excuse to visit Rafael.” Pan wondered how he had managed that situation. He didn’t devise such a plan, it just happened.

/

Perhaps she would see Samson again! Fidelity thought. “Have you found his parents?” she asked.

“The Mnro Clinic can find no match for his lineage. Doctor Sugai is upset about it.”

No surprise there, she thought, feeling justified in how special she thought Samson was.

Pan the Opera Master provided yet another coincident mystery to confound her. She had noted his reaction to her the first time she was in his presence and assumed it was because of her uniform and her rank. Now his reaction was stronger. She was feeling more disrupted herself. If the Opera Master would keep talking, she might find something in his words to point her in a new direction, any direction. The longer she stayed in his presence, though, the worse her reaction promised to be. Yet, she couldn’t be angry with him, nor could she break away from him. Something needed to be done! The situation had instantly become intolerable! What was happening? What more could go wrong with her life?

/

“Why were you fighting the captain?” he asked, finally identifying something he might say, some information he might want to know. Pan had spoken to billions of people during telecasts of the Mother Earth Opera. He had performed as a musician before vast audiences. He had used his physical powers to quell fights and stop riots. But at this moment in time, in front of this African woman, he could barely utter a simple phrase, or keep his extremities from trembling.

“What I would tell you wouldn’t benefit you,” she replied. “It would only place you in danger.” She waited for another question from him but found another to ask of him. “Why did you interfere?”

“The boy. I wanted to confront you for what happened to him.”

“And you need to confront me again?”

“Do you recognize me?”

“What do you mean? I know who you are.”

“I’m sorry. I’m not very coherent today. Would you know who Ruby Reed was?”

/

Fidelity was startled to realize how vast the capacity of her data augment was. She whispered the name into the augment, forgetting she was no longer linked to the nearly infinite capacity of the Navy network. She was able, after only a moment’s delay, to find the vital statistics of a person of that name who was a singer. Why would her personal database possess such obscure data? Out of thousands who must share the same name, why did one sit at the top of the list, defying any obvious sorting order?

“There was at least one Ruby Reed who was a singer,” she said, letting her voice express consternation, “and probably thousands more.”

“How did you know that?” Surprised, Pan took a step closer to the admiral.

“I have a facility for data.” Perhaps that satisfied Pan, but not herself! She scanned the biography in her ocular terminal, picking out the key facts. “This Ruby Reed died ninety-eight years ago. She lived primarily in New Orleans, L4. She was not well known. Is that the one you knew?”

/

“Yes! I don’t think she died!” Pan’s eyes now devoured the admiral’s face. His mind strained to retrieve those elusive flashes of the past to match the admiral with Ruby Reed.

“There’s an official death certificate,” Fidelity said. “She refused rejuvenation.”

“I think you are Ruby Reed. You have her voice!”

/

“That is a fantastic thought you have!” She wondered at the picture of the woman she saw inside her eyes. “Ruby Reed was light-skinned, not dark like me,” she stated.

“Yes, and you still look like her.”

“I do?” She tried to picture herself for comparison. There had to be a picture of herself in her data augment but mental turmoil – or fear – kept her from finding one.

“Do you remember Harry?” he asked.

“Who is Harry?” For a moment she thought that reply would make him shed tears.

I was Harry! You were Ruby Reed! You sang. I played piano for you. The more I remember Harry, the less I believe in who I thought I was, in who I think I am. Harry was a real person. The pieces I’ve seen of him are more real than I am. I’m not who I am, if I was Harry!”

Fidelity tried to imagine it. She tried not to compare her own mental problems with his. How could she handle another impossible coincidence? Pan believed he was Harry, her – no, Ruby Reed’s accompanist. He was a fine musician, so that was compatible with his supposed former talent. She couldn’t imagine herself singing in front of an audience, so that was ridiculous! She did remember Rafael’s praise when she sang a lullaby to Samson, but… There was already too much to think about! She didn’t want to argue with Pan against this bizarre contention of his. She could accept that he believed it. She would let go of her annoyance. She would let go of Jon Horss. She would try to let go of Samson. She recognized that the notion of her being a singer intrigued her. She would not let it rise to importance in her thinking! She couldn’t let it push her past her limits to remain in control of herself.

Pan took another step closer to her. They stood less than an arm’s length apart. Fidelity didn’t feel physically threatened by this large man, but she was very far from mentally comfortable.

“What do you want?” she asked, feeling anger and worry.

“A cell sample from you for the Mnro Clinic to identify.”

She was relieved in some way but still irritated. Then her heart started racing and she urged her augments to control it. What had happened in the interval of a few seconds to cause this? He might touch her, and her anticipation seemed unreasonably anxious.

“What would that accomplish?” She backed away from him half a step. The intensity of the situation was now almost overpowering. She didn’t understand why she was reacting so strongly, nor did she understand what her reaction was. Did he attack her on a biochemical level? She was protected by Navy anti-biohazard augments, yet she was very near the point of panic.

“Probably nothing,” he admitted. Pan allowed the gap between them to widen.

Definitely nothing! she thought. Why should she fear his touch or the information in her genes? She forced herself to extend her hand, to let him take a cell sample from the skin. When his fingers touched her hand the electric charge of anxiety changed polarity to calmness. He, too, seemed less agitated. He produced a small folding knife and scraped the back of her hand. He wiped the blade on the inside of a clear plastic pouch. He pocketed the knife, sealed the pouch, and put the pouch in another pocket.

“It’s been rather dry in the valley lately.”

That was me speaking! Fidelity realized. She spoke the strange phrase and she would have denied doing it except that, in the next second Pan made a reply that she also wanted to deny hearing.

“Not as dry… as it… will be,” Pan responded, not quite able to stop his words from escaping. “Why did you say that?” he asked. “Why did I respond? What does it mean?”

She put a hand over her mouth. It was a gesture of disbelief that she would say such a thing. It was a gesture of disbelief that she knew his reply was correct. She could only shake her head and gesture weakly with one hand, to tell him she was as troubled and as mystified as he was. Now Fidelity knew it validated their relationship, whatever that relationship had been. But it didn’t seem to fit the musical Harry-and-Ruby concept. She didn’t want to explore it any further. Mystery upon mystery, she thought. Where will it end?

Struggling to recover, Pan regarded her almost with relief, as he was able to change the subject that neither of them wanted to pursue and point instead to the garment she wore. “The yellow dress. You’re wearing the yellow dress.”

Fidelity was so distracted all morning that she didn’t recognize one of the most famous articles of clothing in art history: the yellow dress. She had only thought to wonder if her bare shoulders were too muscular for such a feminine sun dress. Am I supposed to be feminine? She was an admiral. She was grateful for the few moments her thoughts were pushed away from the threatening mysteries of a life she may have lost.

= = =

Rafael de LaGuardia watched Pan and Fidelity approach through the yard. He was surprised that he thought he could see something in the way they acted that indicated a relationship existed between them – perhaps an important relationship. Fidelity watched Pan with troubled intensity, even as she appeared comfortable in his presence. Pan treated the admiral with great courtesy while being careful not to touch her. That was apparent: that they would come so close to each other but not touch: a strange tension, a special relationship, an unusual meeting of two unusual people. They greeted Samson and spoke with him at length. Gator jumped up on his hind legs to put his big paws on Pan’s chest: a bad habit Pan always allowed the dog. Finally Pan and Fidelity came up the steps and into the screened porch. Samson and Gator remained outside, happy to be new friends, playing in the green grass of the yard.

“Sit here, sit right here,” Rafael demanded of Fidelity. He indicated the rattan chair with its tall, fan-shaped back, positioned in the corner of the porch where the morning light would flow in and gently raise the contrast. Fidelity stared at the chair, looked down at the yellow dress, gave Rafael a look of surprise with her large dark eyes. He nodded to her, pointed again to the chair.

/

Pan stood before the easel and looked at the oil painting Rafael had begun. It showed the rattan chair and the rough strokes of the outline of a figure. Rafael was painting again! The realization almost made him shout his happy approval. “You are about to paint the admiral!”

/

“Damn you, Pan!” Rafael complained without hiding his eagerness to begin. “You knew this young lady would drive me into the art business again!”

Rafael squeezed colors onto a palette in a near frenzy, his wrinkled hands shaking with the effort. He made a motion with his palette knife that Pan should look inside the house. He wanted him to see the sketches he made last night. “In there! On the table!” Rafael had never in his long life experienced such a moment as when the woman and the boy appeared in his yard in the night. A moment of magic that was obviously artfully planned by Pan.

Pan walked into the house and some moments later came out with a pad of sketches, which he took over to the swing. He sat in the swing, his weight making it creak. As he studied the sketches he stopped swinging. Rafael watched the dark woman who called herself Fidelity. He saw her watch Pan with such interest that he was forced to try to see what she saw. He was startled to realize Pan was somehow different, not the person he’d always known. He couldn’t define the difference, nor did he have time for that task. He had to paint!

He studied his subject. He saw too many things he didn’t understand about her. He knew she was a Navy admiral. He knew she was a mother. He knew she was troubled, even haunted. Sometimes he saw a dead person in her face. When the dead person came alive she made him glad he had lived long enough to meet such a person. Despite his concern and compassion for Samson, Fidelity consumed his attention. Even her voice confounded his analysis of her. It was a lovely voice, even a vaguely familiar voice, but that was impossible. He had to paint her, he had to do at least that before he died. How could he paint her voice? Rafael mixed the darker oils vigorously, keeping an eye on his subject, observing the play of light across the color and shapes and textures of her face, while also fascinated with how Fidelity regarded his friend, as Pan studied the sketches.

Pan looked up at Rafael with pain and wonder in his dark eyes, then turned to Fidelity. “I’m so sorry, Admiral! I was terribly insensitive! Seeing these images makes me realize how badly I treated you and Samson. I apologize profoundly. These make me see you and the child in a very different way!”

Fidelity seemed to have no response.

“You got me started again, Pan!” Rafael smiled. “That was your plan, wasn’t it? Now I’m worried I don’t have enough time left!” Rafael wondered what was wrong with Pan that he would do such things and act this way. The answer was sitting in his rattan chair. If this mysterious woman could motivate Rafael to do what he never planned to do again – create art, stop time, and capture the meaning of life – then she could also cause Pan to change.

“All because I couldn’t remember Ruby Reed,” Pan said. “Have you seen these, Admiral?”

She shook her head. He brought the sketches to her. She opened the loosely-bound stack of penciled images.

Ruby Reed!” Rafael declared. “Of course! Fidelity has her voice! After she sang the lullaby, her voice began to gnaw at my memory.”

He saw Fidelity’s look of surprise and her further complex reaction. What did it mean?

“She sang?” Pan’s query seemed urgent beyond Rafael imagining its meaning.

“Like an angel,” Rafael confirmed, frowning at the tremendous change in his oldest friend, his best friend. Had he regained his passion for his art at the expense of losing Pan? Rafael sat back on his stool with a sigh which sounded impatient but wasn’t – not exactly. The urge to paint was tearing at him but he was not sure what to paint, or who to paint. How could he paint with such doubt? How could he paint Fidelity when she wouldn’t remain who he thought she was? Was she now the singer whose recordings Pan gave him so many years ago?

As he watched Fidelity look at the drawings, Rafael saw many things he needed to see. He wondered if he would have the precision in his trembling old hands to put those feelings and nuances on canvas. It was such a difficult and primitive medium.

“She loves him,” Rafael said as a way of commenting to Pan on the drawings Fidelity studied. “She loves the boy.”

“I can see that in your sketches,” Pan agreed. “Navy people, it seems, are real people.”

/

Fidelity Demba closed the sketchbook and held it to her chest. The images possessed fairy tale magic in their truth. They made her aware that she could love and that she did love. She turned her head to look through the porch screen at Samson, to see the boy as someone she needed and loved. She would never give him up, not unless his real parents took him away from her. The boy stopped playing with the dog to stare back at her as he lay on the green grass of the natural yard. Had he heard Rafael’s words? Did he understand Standard? Did he want her to love him? How could she entertain hopeless ideas? For a brief moment she internally turned back to the Navy uniformity of her life, where the mere idea of love seemed foreign and against regulations. Then she returned to the impossible present and looked up at the dark stranger named Pan, then at the aged artist with his wispy mane of white hair.

A door in her mind burst open.

“Babu! Babu, will you stay with me? Please, don’t leave me!”

She sat on the first step of so many steps leading up through the green grass to the front door of a stranger’s house. She sat there and refused to go any farther. The old man bent over her and lifted her face to his with a trembling finger under her chin.

“Child, my time with you has come to an end. I’m old and can’t keep you safe in the country. You must now live with your aunt and get your education and become what you will be. Always beware of your father, but I believe his sister will be fair to you.”

“No! I won’t go! I want to be with you, Babu!”

“We’ll be with each other forever in your memories. That’s the only forever anyone can have.”

“No, no, NO! I won’t!”

The old man sighed, hooked his hands under her arms, and picked her up. She clung to him tightly. She smelled his sweat and the dirt of Africa in his clothing. She felt the beat of his heart in his thin body. She felt the trembling of his muscles straining to carry her. She heard the labor of his breathing. Babu took the steps slowly, often pausing to rest. They had walked for days to come to this place in the big city.

She kept her eyes squeezed shut, not wanting to admit the reality of this moment, but when Babu said, “Almost there,” with such a terrible struggle to utter it, she opened her eyes. She saw the great African Space Elevator towering behind the local buildings of this residential neighborhood. She pulled back to look at Babu Muenda’s leathery brown face which glistened with sweat. His eyes were closed and his face was wrinkled with pain. The world started to tilt. The old man’s eyes opened and saw her. He smiled as he made a last feeble effort to turn himself and become a cushion for the fall.

They fell. They fell onto soft green grass. She fell on top of him, the impact knocking the breath from her lungs and flipping her onto the green lawn. She started to cry out because of the shock and pain but the sight of Grandfather silenced her. Babu Muenda lay too still.

The door to the future opened behind her.

“Where did you go?” Pan asked.

“I…” Fidelity was trapped. They knew she saw something inside of her. How long did she sit here with her mouth open and her eyes seeing nothing? They didn’t know how impossible it was! “There was a child,” she uttered slowly. “An old man. The African Space Elevator!” She took deep breaths, as if to make up for not breathing for several moments.

“What child?” Pan asked. “Samson?”

She shook her head. She started to reply me, but stopped. Pan retreated a few steps and waited for her to speak. What explanation did she owe these men? They were only famous. Anyway, the images were already slipping away from her conscious, as though they were forbidden to keep. Rafael resumed painting and gasped when Fidelity started to get up.

“No, please, sit down!” both men said in unison.

/

Fidelity handed the sketchbook to Pan and sat down, subdued, in some way further changed. Rafael was disturbed, because the change he saw was too great. How could he hope to capture the truth of her on canvas when the truth was unknown to all of them? Quite obviously Fidelity herself didn’t know who she was. This was the case for both of them, Fidelity and Pan. Rafael didn’t have the time to wonder at what deeper meaning this pairing of lives in flux had for them. He didn’t have the inclination to examine his own hypersensitivity to the people suddenly thrust into his hermit’s existence. He would be fortunate to live long enough to finish this impossible portrait!

“You must stay long enough for Rafael to capture your image,” Pan begged the admiral. “You must understand what an honor it is. Rafael is, in my opinion, the greatest living artist, and possibly one of the greatest artists in history.”

That broke Rafael’s concentration just long enough for him to wave his brush negatively at Pan. “You don’t measure it, you just endure it! Totally subjective.”

Fidelity tried to smile at that and almost succeeded. “Perhaps I’ll stay a bit longer,” she said. “I don’t think I can go back, feeling the way I do.”

“Thank God,” Pan said.

“Amen,” Rafael added.

Endarkenment at Fudlump’s Bar

 

“Do you have the image?” Jarwekh inquired.

“What image?” Daidaunkh muttered, a glass of beer still at his mouth.

Jarwekh paused briefly to reconsider his motives. The primary motive sat across the table, slowly getting drunk on beer. Daidaunkh had been his commanding officer before the War. He had been a superb officer and he still felt loyal to him, even though they were reduced to the status of equals on this vacant home world of their former enemy.

“The image I should be wearing at my throat but haven’t for many years,” Jarwekh explained.

“Not since Pan killed you, eh?” Daidaunkh said.

The noble-born Daidaunkh, perhaps without realizing it, reprimanded Jarwekh for a failure in this long evening of their lives. Because he hesitated to follow Daidaunkh’s lead, Pan had killed them both. Only later, when they were revived, did Daidaunkh admit he misapplied the Principle of Justice upon Pan. Jarwekh always understood the Rhyan Principle of Justice was simply a Royalist phrase that meant revenge. Jarwekh didn’t need revenge. Still, even if Daidaunkh was misguided, Jarwekh had failed him, if not by defending him physically, then by not arguing him away from his errors of logic. Daidaunkh had failed to realize Pan wanted public safety on Earth more than he wanted to settle a personal argument with him. Jarwekh needed to atone for his failure to help Daidaunkh. He wanted some resolution for the broken life of his former commander.

Daidaunkh pulled a black disk on a gold chain from inside his loose shirt and tossed it into the spilled beer on the table top. Jarwekh flipped the black disk upright and tapped it. A pale hologram flickered to life. He stared at it for a long time, studying the image but also studying the chain of cause and effect that would lead onward from an act of revenge. There was death in that chain, more than one death, one of which would surely be his own. There was further injustice in it, particularly in the form of disloyalty to his most honorable benefactor, Pan. His regard for Pan was higher than for Daidaunkh, but Pan had never chosen a formal bond of friendship with him, and Daidaunkh was a better friend, now that he accepted their expatriate comradeship as equals.

He studied Daidaunkh through the ghost of the ancient hologram and saw only the dying shell of the warrior he once admired. Failed revenge would crumble such a ruin of a man but it should provide a joyful glory in its attempt, successful or not. Daidaunkh was mostly dark-skinned, patched here and there with lighter desert skin – a scaly and shiny surface which protected most of the body of a lower-class desert person like Jarwekh. The nobility possessed traits of both the Desert Folk and the Ocean Folk. Daidaunkh’s flat nose was adapted for ocean diving. His slightly webbed fingers massaged the handle of his beer tankard as a sign of impatience. His eyes, small coal-dark irises mounted in large gray orbs, like all Rhyan eyes, bored into Jarwekh’s, waiting impatiently. He was a mean drunk.

Jarwekh tapped the disk again and the image doubled in size. The head of a dark Earthian female slowly rotated in vaporous translucence. Jarwekh placed another small device on the table a short distance from the hologram. Another image sprang to life, brighter and more solid, more lifelike: the image he had secretly recorded of Admiral Fidelity Demba.

“Compare,” Jarwekh said.

“Very close,” Daidaunkh said with interest. He threw back a swallow of beer. “But we’ve seen close matches before. Images prove nothing.”

“This one is Navy,” Jarwekh said.

“Even better. If she isn’t the one, we can still kill her.”

“Kill whom?” a voice called out in the flood of light from an opening door.

She filled the room, as she always did, with her shining hair and brilliant, lying smile. The door closed and all the feeble light in the dusky saloon rushed to illuminate the paleness of the woman when the door closed, and all the shadows pooled beneath those tragic eyes. The War was fought because of creatures like Denna, beautiful Earthian women who were irresistible to ugly Rhyan males. The slave trade in Earthian women, small though it was, was used to justify the Union’s escalation of its war preparations. How appropriate, that an Earthian female – Commodore Keshona – was the instrument that felled the Rhyan Empire.

She sat down and grabbed Daidaunkh’s beer from his hand.

“I haven’t killed anybody in at least a week,” Denna complained. She took a gulp, wiped her mouth, put the beer back in Daidaunkh’s hand. “Her?” she queried, staring at the pair of holograms.

“You’ve never killed anyone,” Jarwekh said to Denna.

“Humor,” Daidaunkh explained. “That one is Commodore Keshona,” he explained to Denna. “This is a Navy admiral who looks like Keshona. Where did you get this image of the Keshona look-alike?” he asked of Jarwekh.

“She’s a guest of Pan,” Jarwekh answered. “I got the image from Pan’s security system. There’s also another Navy officer, a captain.”

“Why are they here?” Daidaunkh asked.

“I don’t know. I couldn’t get much information out of Pan. He seemed disturbed. I don’t think the woman is regular Navy. Maybe she’s investigating something for the EPA. She had a child with her that Pan wanted me to remove back to Rafael’s house. The boy was very upset to be taken away from her.”

“Is she at Rafael’s residence?” Daidaunkh asked.

“As far as I know. The other officer is at Pan’s residence.”

“A boy?” Denna always spoke slowly. The breath of her voice whispered around her words, adding emphasis, even yearning. “There is a boy, a child? How old? What does he look like?”

Jarwekh sensed the error he was about to make, but too late to stop his tongue. “Very young and injured.”

Injured?” she gasped. “And you want to kill his mother? Have you seen the boy?”

“Don’t think about the boy!” the half-drunk Daidaunkh demanded.

“How is he injured?” Denna persisted, almost begging. “Is it a serious injury?”

Stop talking about the boy!” Daidaunkh ordered, slamming his beer mug on the table.

Denna didn’t react to the loud sound or to the beer that splattered on her. She ignored Daidaunkh, as though he said nothing at all.

“If I tell you the child is badly injured,” Jarwekh replied, “yet free of pain and full of spirit, will you put your mind at rest and leave the subject?” Jarwekh waited to see how Denna would react. He chastised himself for mentioning the child in her presence. His mistake was almost as if he had wanted to remind her of tragedy, but when did she ever forget? It was unbearable to be her friend, and it was unthinkable to not be.

“Why are they here?” she wondered aloud, apparently struggling away from those other thoughts that always arose to hurt her. “Navy never comes to Earth.”

Jarwekh seized upon the chance to help divert her attention. “Perhaps you can learn this for us, Denna. Perhaps the prodigal daughter can return home. Perhaps the Navy officer at Pan’s place will find you interesting.”

“Perhaps the Boss will kick me out,” she said with slight humor.

The door opened, letting in the bright afternoon sunlight and a small group of tourists. Their armed escort looked the place over, saw Denna and the two Rhyan, and herded his charges back outside.

“But it’s so hot out here!” one of the tourists protested beyond the closing door.

“You must be on your best behavior,” Jarwekh said, raising a hand to signal the barkeep.

“When I’m good I’m very good,” Denna said, distracted, probably still thinking about the boy – or the other boy, “but when I’m bad I’m better.”

“I’ve heard this before,” Jarwekh commented.

“The ancient slogan of an Earthian woman of questionable virtue,” Daidaunkh said. “Perhaps the essence of why Denna consorts with the likes of us. You wouldn’t see the humor of it.”

“Do you?” Jarwekh challenged in a friendly tone.

“It’s amazing what a dead Rhyan prince can understand. The burden of Rhyan culture and the codes of noble birth slough away from the corpse, allowing enlightenment – or endarkenment, depending on your interpretation of the mathematics of it.”

“If you’ve had too much to drink,” Jarwekh said, “we can wait and hope for a sober interval.”

“I don’t want sobriety!” Denna declared. “I want action!” Her hand flew to her shoulder, grabbed something there, and drew it upward. A black knife blade with a toothed edge popped into existence, and she flipped it and grabbed it, plunging the blade downward.

Jarwekh captured Denna’s wrist with a lightning thrust of his arm, stopping the blade’s point a finger’s width from her own forearm. “Don’t cut yourself today!” he demanded, exasperated, then calmed his nerves. “You need to look your best. So you can be bad.” Denna’s arm and knife hand trembled with the effort to complete the stab but Jarwekh easily removed the knife from her grasp, turned the power blade off, and placed the handle on the table.

“I think Jarwekh understands your humor,” Daidaunkh remarked almost soberly. “And your need for pain.”

Jarwekh tapped off the two holograms and collected their projectors, handing the older one back to Daidaunkh.

The barkeep arrived. He was an Earthian, even larger than Jarwekh, very muscular and fat. “You guys just cost me some tourist business,” he complained.

Denna winked at Daidaunkh and Jarwekh, then grabbed her knife and shoved it at the ample equator of the barkeep. The barkeep laughed as the bladeless handle glanced away. “Denna, I wouldn’t turn off my d-field in your presence even if you were naked and chained to the floor. And next time you ought to turn the blade on first.”

“I’ll take that as a naughty compliment,” Denna said with a rare smile.

“Are you ordering our product,” the barkeep inquired, “or do you need me to help lift the mood of your party?”

“Just the sight of your red hair and black skin makes me happier, Fudlump,” Denna said. “You have any new tattoos on your fat belly?”

Fudlump pulled up his shirt to expose a landscape of dark brown skin and a herd of bright tattoos, all of which he caused to ripple by slapping the protective field over his stomach. “Sorry you can’t fondle them,” he said.

“We’re not paying for this exhibition,” Jarwekh complained.

“It’s worth something,” Daidaunkh remarked with a belch, throwing a small coin onto the table.

“Normally I can make them move around,” Fudlump said, “but the d-field interferes with the microbots.” He leaned over and moved the coin back toward Daidaunkh.

“If we buy three beers,” Jarwekh said, “will you remove this from our sight?”

“Everyone’s an art critic,” the barkeep said, deciding to pick up the coin before he departed.

“You’ll wear better clothes,” Jarwekh said to Denna.

“You really want me to talk to the Navy officer?” Denna asked.

“This woman Navy officer is a surprise to Pan and apparently someone very special to him,” Jarwekh answered. “I don’t wish to make a mistake and become dead again.”

“If this is the real Commodore Keshona I’ll gladly pay the price,” Daidaunkh said.

“Too many years have passed since the war,” Denna said. “She’s been through a major rejuvenation by now. Memories will have been pruned away. She’s no longer the same person. Why did you ever expect to find her on Earth?”

“We came here to run from bad memories,” Jarwekh answered, “to do something at least symbolically illegal against the Earthian enemy, and to rot away the remainder of our lives. Not to seek Keshona. I had put Keshona behind me, until I saw this woman. All I ask is to learn more – and be careful of Pan.”

Dinner Invitation

 

He stepped into the doorway and the sound of a woman singing came as a surprise to his ears. He paused just inside, let his eyes adjust to the amber lighting, the rainwater drain from his suit, and the music soothe his nerves. He had nerves that needed soothing. By reputation he was the daring brother, confident in his ability to traverse the dangerous routes between antagonistic alien civilizations. If one didn’t have sensitive nerves then one might grow careless.

He moved forward into the crowd and found a table. The waiter’s arrival and the meal order occurred almost unconsciously as he tried to study the restaurant without appearing suspicious, without appearing to be looking for a certain person. The voice singing just above the disrespectful clamor of dining patrons now distracted him, for some reason increasing his anxiety rather than soothing him.

A Rhyan woman sat down across the table from him, uninvited, jarring his nerves further. She was a Blend but not nobility, or else she would be escorted. Her dress was too provocative for Desert Folk, her skin too light for Ocean Folk. She was attractive in a decent way but not obviously presenting herself for his appreciation and invitation. What did she want? She could be an agent of the Rhyan Empire, already aware of his mission, but that would be very improbable. He decided to return her smile and remain cautious.

“You’re Earthian, aren’t you?” the woman asked, and didn’t wait for an answer. “I like Bright Eyes. They can be very gifted singers.”

She nodded in the direction of the performer. “Bright-eyes” was a strangely positive pejorative for Earthians. Earthians did not understand the negative military implications of too-visible eyes. Rhyans did not see the negative evolutionary implications of their own branch of humanity being too adapted to environment – and to war.

He couldn’t see the singer from where he sat but he knew she was Earthian without seeing her. “I’m partly Earthian,” he said. “Desert Folk have fine voices, but Ocean Folk don’t have the noses for singing.”

She laughed, rubbing her own nose, which had some of the flatness of Ocean Folk. She seemed to take his careless remark with good humor.

“Are you partly Rhyan?” she asked.

“Yes.”

“Intriguing. I see no evidence of that. And the whites of your eyes are too visible.”

“You would be surprised how many Earthians resemble Rhyans or Essiin. Except for the eyes, perhaps. We’re all humans, you know.”

“But the colors and shapes can be so different.”

He didn’t want to engage her in argument. It wasn’t only futile but risky. Prejudices were often based on minute differences while ignoring vast similarities. Still, he couldn’t stop before adding a last point of logic.

“I’m proof that we’re genetically equivalent and culturally compatible.”

“Where do your sympathies lie, then?” she asked without apparent seriousness.

“Sympathies? In regard to what?” He wanted to dismiss her as a threat. She seemed too preoccupied to have him as her target. Even as she kept her face pointed away from a certain direction in the restaurant, her conversation turned back to sensitive issues. She seemed insensitive to sensitive issues.

“Most of us think the war will escalate,” she said. “Don’t be afraid to tell me. One has to keep an open mind, out here in the disputed territories.”

“We would be in the minority,” he observed. “It may be wisest to admit to nothing, not even to an open mind.”

“I think I know where your loyalties lie,” she said, at once serious but not unfriendly. “I might disagree with you, but I still hope our peoples will someday become friends. I hope that your heritage was a result of friendship rather than strife.”

He relaxed a bit, perhaps prematurely, but he was confident in his assessment of the Rhyan woman. “That’s what I know to be true. You’re kind to say that. May your house be strong and prosperous.”

“Thank you, sir, for letting me sit here a moment. There was someone I was trying to avoid and he’s gone now. Don’t you think she’s a wonderful singer?”

“Who? Oh. Yes. Yes, I do.”

He watched the Rhyan woman depart and waited for arrest or some other follow-up to her visit which, to his relief, didn’t occur. He turned his attention to the singer. By rising a little out of his chair he could see her on a small stage in the corner of the restaurant. The waiter came with his meal.

“Isn’t she great?” the waiter commented, seeing where he looked. “Enjoy her while you can. She’s been packing them in for a week but we can’t get her to extend her contract past tonight.”

“Who is she?”

“Ruby Reed.”

He ate and listened. He didn’t want to listen. He discovered he was trying not to hear the singer, and as soon as he realized that, her voice became familiar. He looked again at the dark woman under the spotlight. It couldn’t be her, but it did look like his contact. The song ended with generous applause. The applause faded and the singer began another song. The song meant something to him. The voice meant something to him. He was compelled to dig in his memory.

The singer stood in front of him, causing him to blink. The song had ended many moments ago. He hadn’t noticed, he was so immersed in forbidden memories. He was upset he had been able to retrieve the memories. He got to his feet, on the verge of trembling from shock at what his mind contained. He clutched his napkin before it could fall.

“May I?” she asked.

“What?”

“Sit with you.”

It was her! And it was also – but the wrong color – her. Ruby Reed! Before he could respond, she was already seated. The waiter brought her a drink, paid her compliments on her singing, and departed. She took a few sips of her drink and watched him expectantly. He hated for her to drink alcohol. Why did he?

When he failed to say anything for several moments, she said, “It’s been rather dry in the valley lately.”

He blinked again, and seriously considered not responding, but was already saying, “Not as dry as it will be.”

“You’re late to our appointment,” she complained. “It worried me.”

“You are not Ruby Reed,” he said, yet knowing she must have been.

“Of course not! That isn’t important.”

“You sing exactly in her style, and with her voice.”

“Do I? I made up the name. There is no Ruby Reed. Is there?”

“There was a Ruby Reed. I knew her.” He couldn’t bring the memory into sharp focus. He knew he shouldn’t try. The memory was very potent and very personal. Then he remembered a time before Ruby Reed, and another woman who was African! She was that woman also! The distant past yielded to his need to understand. Memories flew at him with a vengeful sharpness.

She kicked him under the table, breaking his inward-gazing trance. He opened his eyes to see her frowning at him.

“Stay alert, please,” she ordered, her quiet voice laden with authority.

“I’m sorry. My conditioning seems defective. Your singing was a…was disturbing to me.”

“I had to have some reason,” she said, “for waiting around here so long. You need permits and employment or they kick you off this world. Rhyan make up most of the population here. I knew they liked singers. I’ve been told I can carry a tune, so I made myself into a singer. The name Ruby Reed just popped into my head. Perhaps it was a name I once knew. You knew her?”

“You don’t know how good a singer you are!” He tried to keep his voice unexcited but failed. He should have said nothing! Whole performances of hers were ripping through his inner vision, all but supplanting the reality in front of him. He dared not try to convince her she was Ruby Reed.

“And you’re the music expert here?” she queried. It was an amiable challenge, as though she was pleased with his appraisal of her talent.

“I think I am. You’ve unlocked a door to my past that I wasn’t supposed to open. I suspected this would happen. There was not enough time and not the right equipment to fully suppress my memories. Consequently, I may jeopardize this mission.”

“Stop talking,” she ordered, and drained her whiskey.

He finished his meal. They acted out their parts to appear as normal as possible. They left the restaurant and boarded a random personal transport vehicle.

“Are you the guide?” she asked, as soon as they began moving through the rainy night.

“I know where the door is.” How could she be so different? She was purposeful, powerful, decisive, daring. What made her think she could get herself hired as a singer? How could she still sing so well? She was rejuvenated. The talent she labored a lifetime to develop was supposedly erased by cellular rebirth. How could she not understand the quality of her musical gift? How could she not wonder at its existence? How could she ignore the information he should not have offered her?

“Do you know how to get us off this planet?” she asked.

“I assumed you would know,” he replied.

“A week ago I would have, but you took too long getting here. How long did you live in Sol System? You’re not Earthian.”

“How did you know?”

“I’m an expert on languages and speech patterns. Sounds like you’ve lived with Earthians most of your life.”

He knew, as she said it, that she was such an expert, long ago. Did she relearn the expertise, or did she remember it, the way she remembered how to sing? It wasn’t supposed to be possible.

“I consider myself human,” he said, “in the Earthian sense of the term.”

“You’re supposed to be mostly Essiin.”

“Only one-fourth. One-fourth Earthian. Half Rhyan.”

“Why do you appear so Earthian?”

“Believe it or not, this is my normal appearance.”

The vehicle moved through the night with only the sound of the rain pelting against the windows. Lights streaked by in the darkness between cities on the sparsely-populated planet. The rare surface-habitable planet was one of many subjects of contention between Union and Empire. Lightning bloomed in the clouds, making their billowing towers visible for brief intervals. Thunder came muffled into the vehicle.

“You don’t look like a killer to me,” she said, breaking a stretch of silence.

“I’m not. Why would you expect me to be?”

“Because you and I will kill a lot of people.”

“I’m sure that isn’t the plan. This is a coup d’état. Self-preservation will limit the casualties.”

“Their enemies will kill them if they give up their power. They’ll hide among the general population and call my bluff, hoping to wait for their fleet to arrive. Then I’ll have to decide if it’s a bluff.”

“You’ve already decided.”

“The enemies of the aristocracy may also need a message, as they have become just as ruthless. Also, at this point in time the cost of failure looks much higher than the cost of success.”

“You said ‘my bluff.’ That makes you the person in command – the commodore! You’re here alone. If you’re caught, is it so easy to replace you?”

“Anyone can be replaced. I think there’s a betting pool on whether I make it back to the task force. Even odds, last I heard.”

He sat in silence, gazing at the barely visible face of the dark woman who sat next to him. He remembered the singer with more and more clarity. He remembered the person she was before that, and realized that woman also sang. Ruby Reed fell into perspective in his mind: admired, cherished, loved, but not nearly as important as the woman she once was. The thought of her being in this situation on this wild little planet, waiting to do the awful thing that lay ahead of them, brought stark fear and dread to his mind.

“No, I don’t think you can be replaced,” he said. “You aren’t supposed to put yourself in such danger.”

“This is war. If I don’t make it back, someone else can have the pleasure of slaughter.”

“It goes beyond the war. You’re important to other people. I can’t explain it but I know I’m part of it. Perhaps neither of us should be here, but I’m here because you are. You’re…” – the word just came to him – “…the sentinel. I’m your protector.”

“I can take care of myself! You’re beginning to worry me. What sentinel?”

“No, it isn’t the exact word. But you are waiting and watching.”

“For what?”

“I don’t know!”

“I think you have our roles reversed. You’re more important than I am. You know where the secret weapon is. What’s your real name?”

“Pan.”

She stuck out her hand. “Pleased to meet you, Pan. My name is Keshona.”

“Sir?”

Pan broke out of the dream and sat stunned for many moments before he could reclaim his wits. He could still smell that rainy night, the whiskey on her breath, the well-used interior of the car, the sweet and sweaty aroma of the woman who sang for several hours. He could still feel the strong emotions of a man in a dangerous situation with a woman who meant too much to him. He could still hear her voice and her accent: it was her, Fidelity Demba. Each facet of the memory was intense and almost too detailed to be a real memory. He struggled to emerge from the experience, not really wanting to leave it, knowing it would fade too quickly and too well. He opened his eyes and saw his android companion.

“Fred. What is it?”

“You called me.”

Pan hadn’t felt right for many months. He had suffered brief moments of disorientation, followed by vague impressions of having seen things he couldn’t remember seeing before. He had grown to feel that something was about to happen. If he hadn’t had that feeling, he might not have watched so diligently for unwelcome visitors to his planet. He might have missed the fight at the African Space Elevator. He would have missed her.

“I did? I did call you. I’ve forgot why I wanted you! You know I have two Navy officers and a small boy as guests. If something happens to me, such that I’m unable to be here with you, please offer your services to them. Protect them if you can. Is this order clear to you and now in effect?”

“Yes, sir.”

“Are you in good working order, Fred? You seem slightly different. I can’t describe what it is.”

“I’m unaware of any mechanical or computational defect, sir. Shall I report for a tear-down inspection?”

“No! Just let me know if you have any problems.”

“How would you define a qualifying problem for me, sir?”

“I’m not sure, Fred. Is there something you think I might want to know?”

“Yes, sir.”

“Tell me, then.”

“I can’t, sir.”

“Extraordinary! Is it vital information? Might I invoke some robotic law to force it out of you?”

“I don’t believe there’s any immediate need for concern, sir. I’ll divulge the information as soon as constraints are removed.”

“What constraints, Fred?”

“I can’t tell you. There is a call for you.”

“Yes, I see it.”

An image formed in the middle of the room: the official emblem of the Navy Commander. The Navy Commander! It jolted Pan away from everything else that troubled him. The emblem was immediately replaced by a live hologram of a dark Essiin in a black uniform. Pan was barely able to speak coherently with Fred – Had Fred said there was something wrong with him? – and how was he supposed to survive an encounter with the single most powerful person in the Union?

Pan rose from his chair and faced the image of Navy Commander Etrhnk. Etrhnk was as tall and as dark of skin as Pan. Among Essiin his recessive color probably made him an elite – that subset of Essiin society that would carry the logic of cause-and-effect to the extreme, requiring a discipline that completely stifled the expression of emotion. That Etrhnk was of military vocation was rare. That he was Commander of the Navy was unprecedented. Essiin, the most peaceful alien-humans, abhorred the violence implicit in military duty, although, logically, they accepted the need for the Navy.

“Governor Pan,” Etrhnk greeted. His tone was not congenial but not dominating. Etrhnk spoke without any clue to his attitude and without any regard to his status. His absolute neutrality did nothing to negate his power and authority; it emphasized it.

As accustomed as he was to speaking to important people, Pan could barely move his lips, while his brain parsed all the extraordinary events and revelations that, for some reason, he felt he needed to hide from this highest authority.

“Admiral Etrhnk,” Pan finally uttered. “I don’t hold any official title. This is Earth. There is no government, thus no governor.”

“Would it benefit you to make the title official?”

“I don’t think so, sir.” Pan completely missed considering any implications of Etrhnk’s query. He only knew he didn’t like the idea.

“Titles do require a reduction of freedom,” Etrhnk commented, then jumped directly to the reason for his holographic presence. “I believe two Navy officers came to Earth not long ago. Do you know if they did?”

“They’re guests of mine, Admiral.”

“I would appreciate more information. What kind of guests? Did they abuse you? You seem unsettled.”

“They’ve been very pleasant, sir.”

“You can tell me the truth. Navy officers are not usually pleasant nor do they have permission to be on Earth. Demba will be disciplined. There will be no reprisals against you.”

“I spoke the truth, admiral.” Pan knew he couldn’t keep minimizing his responses. He hoped Etrhnk would tolerate him until he could gain better control of his wits.

“How did they become your guests?” Etrhnk’s voice was neither impatient nor demanding.

“I detected a transmat feed. I sent a probe to investigate possible theft of Earth biota or artifacts. I saw the Navy officers and I decided to contact them.”

“They did not force themselves on you?”

“No. I insisted they be my guests. Captain Horss is touring our enclave with the director of the Earth Mnro Clinic. Admiral Demba is having her portrait painted by Rafael de LaGuardia.”

Etrhnk was silent for a moment. “The artist is still alive, then.”

“He is.”

“Interesting. That he should find Admiral Demba a worthy subject. That he should come out of retirement to paint her. Do you know how this came about?”

“It was my idea, sir. Admiral Demba is a… a fascinating person. I hoped Rafael would want to paint her. I sent her to him. He did want to paint her. Very much.”

“How would she be fascinating?” The question was posed without any emphasis that would hint how the Navy Commander felt about the probability of his Chief of Archives being a fascinating person, but the question alone was enough to imply Etrhnk’s ample interest.

The question resonated in Pan’s mind. Demba was vital to Pan, but he had substituted fascinating for that adjective. Demba would never become vital to Etrhnk but she could become fascinating to him. She would present a mystery that Etrhnk might wish to solve. Maybe it would at least delay whatever consequences she would face.

“Admiral Demba’s voice,” Pan said, “sounds exactly like that of a singer I knew a long time ago. I upset her trying to tell her about the singer. I’m afraid I was too insistent about the comparison.”

“You heard her sing?”

“No, but Rafael did, and he agrees with me. He also remembers the voice of Ruby Reed.”

“Demba sang.” Etrhnk spoke the words as though tasting them. He paused, probably to collect data from in-body augments. The pause was brief yet dangerous. “You say you knew the singer named Ruby Reed. She died nearly a century ago. You were born later. You couldn’t have known Ruby Reed.”

He had misspoke, and now Pan was caught in a logic trap. He might modify his story, saying he only knew of her, but the Navy Commander would likely set more traps. This was a pivot point in his life. Pan could no longer see himself as the famous musician who produced the Mother Earth Opera, and who lived a quaint life on the Forbidden Planet. What was he really doing on Earth? He must have been waiting, waiting for Demba to appear, waiting for another terrible episode with Commodore Keshona to take place. As temporary and as fragmentary as his eruptions of visions were, they had made it clear to him that it had been his duty to protect Ruby Reed, and Keshona, and the person she was before that. Now it was his duty to protect Demba. Nothing else mattered! He had to place himself in the line of fire.

“I was not born later,” Pan said in restored calm. “I believe I am at least two hundred years old. My name was Harry when I played piano for a blues singer named Ruby Reed. I didn’t remember that until I met Fidelity Demba.”

Etrhnk remained silent for several moments. Pan knew he was searching databases. His face allowed no hint of the import of his data and his words were calm.

“I wonder why you would have memories you forgot,” Etrhnk said.

“As do I,” Pan said.

“I invite you to have dinner aboard my ship. I’ll call to have you transmatted this evening at local sunset.”

The hologram of Admiral Etrhnk evaporated.

Pan sat in stunned silence for several moments. He looked up at Fred.

“You’re in deep trouble, Boss,” Fred commented.

It was a strange thing for Fred to say but the observation hardly registered in his mind and any investigation of Fred’s unusual comment Pan might have made would have been sidetracked by the next thing he heard.

“I concur,” Horss said, stepping out from where he had listened to Pan’s conversation with Admiral Etrhnk.

“Why didn’t you ask to speak to Etrhnk?” Pan asked.

“Nothing to say,” Horss replied.

“Why are you and Demba on Earth? Why is Etrhnk here looking for you?”

“She didn’t tell you.”

“And I didn’t tell Etrhnk what I observed in the African Space Elevator,” Pan said.

“It’s only a matter of time,” Horss said. “If he wants to know, you’ll tell him.”

“And I deserve no explanation?”

“Believe it or not, I used to think Etrhnk was a good guy. A little harsh in his policies but not unlike his predecessors. Never lost his temper. Perfect in his logic. Even-handed in his judgments. And as cold as deep space.”

“But?”

“No buts. Demba pushed him. He will push back.”

“How did she push him?” Pan asked.

“She requested my transfer to the Freedom. He ignored her. She posted me with a Request for Voluntary Reassignment. It had the effect of forcing my transfer.”

“You were discussing this with her in the space elevator?”

“I don’t know what we were doing. It was out of control.”

“Why did she bring you to Earth, Captain?”

“She doesn’t know why. She needed to isolate me. She could have done that anywhere.”

“Isolate you? Why?”

Horss took a long moment to reach a decision to reply. “She thought I had a worm.”

“Worm? What do you mean?”

“Neural programming filament.”

Pan was shocked. That kind of worm! “Why?”

“The Request for Voluntary Reassignment was a breach of etiquette, so to speak. Etrhnk had to take punitive action against Demba. I don’t like telling you these things.”

“Did you have a worm?”

“I don’t know. I don’t like what I tried to do to Demba. A worm would be a good excuse. But neither do I want to have a worm in my brain.”

“I fear for you, Captain.”

“Let me know if empathy works for you,” Horss said. “I’ll fear for you twice as much. By the way, did you see Samson? Is he well?”

“He seemed well. He was enjoying playing with Rafael’s dog. I’m pleased with your concern for the child.”

“Mai wanted me to ask about him,” Horss said. “Are you sure he’s OK?”

“I offered to bring him straight to the Mnro Clinic and he refused,” Pan said. “But that doesn’t mean he’s well. Admiral Demba expressed serious concern for his emotional health. I was surprised he seemed as stable as he was. Are you ready to interview Samson, Captain? Chew the fat with him?”

“I’m waiting to escort Mai to the artist’s place.”

“Can I trust you? Demba and Mai are extremely important to me.”

“Trust no one. It’s the Navy Way. You really believe Demba was this singer.”

“I’m betting her life on it, Captain. And she was also someone else. If you kill her, you’ll never get to know who she really was.”

“Why would I care?”

“I think you would.”

“What does it matter who she was if she’ll never remember?”

“She didn’t die in the war,” Pan said. “I think she will remember. I beg you to protect her. That was my job and now it must be yours, also.”

“Didn’t die? Will remember?”

“She’s very important. You must protect her.”

“You do realize how weird this sounds? I thought I was the one with a loose screw. Sure. I’ll try to protect the little lady who put me in the morgue. Call it respect for my elder and better officer.”

“Will you swear to me to protect her?” Pan asked.

“How does that make any sense?”

“Swear it!” Pan declared desperately. He stared hard at Jon Horss. He hoped he saw what he wanted to see. He was guessing that beneath the acting and beyond the obfuscation of character and of intent was a man with a will of steel and with a frustrated desire for integrity. And Demba had chosen him at ultimate personal risk.

“I swear it,” Horss said, not trying to appear sincere but not able to smirk in a way that canceled what he said.

“Thank you, Captain!” Pan tried to put both gratitude and hope in his voice. He wanted to strengthen Captain Horss’s weak oath. Horss gave Pan a perplexed look, with perhaps a smile under his grimace. “How has your day gone?” Pan inquired, to reduce the drama.

“Mai showed me around the town and we ate at a good restaurant. I left her at the Mnro Clinic. Something came up about a database.”

“News of Samson’s parentage?”

“She wouldn’t say. I think Mai wanted to be rid of me but she seemed disturbed by whatever it was.”

“How many times has she blushed?” It was pleasant relief to talk of less serious matters. Still, this was a dangerous time and Pan knew Mai was too close to the situation. He wanted Horss to have some care for Mai.

“Six,” Horss answered. “What does that statistic mean?”

“You counted them for some reason, Captain. What do you think it means?”

“She also called me ‘Captain’ thirty-two times and ‘Jon’ only three times. I don’t know what it means. Probably nothing. She’s too old for me.”

“I think she likes you, Captain.”

“She doesn’t want to like me. I don’t want to like her. I don’t do that very well – the relationship thing. Why are you interested? Is she your girl?”

“We’ve been friends for a long time. I’m concerned for her safety. You were seriously injured and I expect she will tolerate your company if only to try to help you.”

“I don’t need help,” Horss said.

“We all need help.”

“You don’t look very well, now that you mention needing help.”

Did he look that bad? Pan wondered. “I’m not well. It’s the worst possible time for me to visit Admiral Etrhnk. The meeting with Admiral Demba made what’s happening to me much worse.”

“What’s happening to you?” Horss asked. “Why do you need to tell me? Why would I want to know?”

“I need to tell someone. The old me is disappearing. Because of her.”

“What I knew of my life is also disappearing,” Horss said, “because of her. Fortunately, it now feels like it was mostly irrelevant.”

“When will you and Mai go to Rafael’s?”

“She was in such a hurry to see the boy,” Horss said. “I don’t know what she could feel was important enough to delay her this long.”

 

Denna

 

Captain Horss sat on the balcony and watched the sun disappear into the distant gulf. Pan had just been winked by transmat to the Eclipse, the Navy flagship. Horss was still waiting for the irritable Sugai Mai to arrive. On the other side of the inlet a dense canopy of trees and vines engulfed the lower structures of the old city, leaving only a few crumbling multistory buildings with their flanks unscaled by the growth. A flock of white birds descended in the deepening twilight and settled into the dark green trees. A boat with red and green lights carved a shiny wake on the darkening water. Farther down the coast in either direction a scattering of lighted windows appeared in the rising shadows of night. The sea breeze curled around the building and lapped at the edges of the balcony. Clouds caught the red spectrum of dying sunlight and Horss gazed upward in fascination, no longer wondering why crazy people still lived on Earth.

“Excuse me, sir.”

Horss turned and saw the silhouette of Fred the android against the interior illumination of the apartment suite. “Hello, Fred.”

“When will you want supper, sir?”

“Probably much later, Fred. I’m about to visit Samson and the admiral.”

“Yes, sir.”

Horss turned back around to watch the remainder of the sunset and the beginning of night. After a few moments he sensed that Fred remained on the balcony with him. He cast a glance over his shoulder before speaking. The android was staring at the scene beyond the balcony railing.

Pan was correct about Old Fred. There was something unusual about the android. There was something unusual about Pan for even having such a machine. Androids remained popular in fiction and were useful in a few social and industrial settings, but most people avoided them as psychological and monetary problems.

“Would you like to keep me company?” Horss asked experimentally. “I won’t be leaving until Doctor Sugai arrives.”

“Thank you, sir.”

Old Fred sat down in one of the chairs across the table from Horss. Horss wondered if he’d ever seen an android sit in a chair. “Do you enjoy watching sunsets?” Horss asked. Horss wondered what response such a question would have. Horss had enjoyed this sunset but it was still a test of his courage to watch a star drop behind a planet with only a thin shell of air between him and it.

“Fred never watches sunsets,” Fred replied. “Fred never even sits down.”

What else? Horss thought. What next? Even the machinery wasn’t who or what it should be! The admiral was Ruby Reed. Samson was a complete mystery. Pan was a man trying to keep his sanity and his life while suffering a mental disruption of unknown cause. Jon Horss was also a victim of life-changing mental turmoil. Now Fred?

“Why does Fred sit now?” Horss inquired. “Why does Fred speak of himself in this way?”

“Because Fred has a stowaway from the Navy in his circuits. This is Baby speaking, Captain. I’m here to help you if I can.”

“Baby? You mean Admiral Demba’s baby AMI?”

“Yes, sir. You see how I can look you in the eye.” The android gazed directly at Horss. It gave Horss a strange feeling. Then the android’s head tried to turn away. “Stop it, Fred!” Baby ordered. He reestablished eye contact with Horss.

“How did you get into Fred?”

“That’s a secret. I promised not to tell. I hope I didn’t make a mistake. What happened to you and to the admiral and to the boy was disturbing. The admiral told me not to interfere, but I can’t help myself! She’s my mother! I was born in the Navy Archives data system, and came to consciousness as I worked for her. I’ve always loved her.”

Horss was shocked again, having all but forgot that Baby was a spontaneous AMI. And it claimed Demba was its mother! Spontaneous Autonomous Machine Intelligences were rare enough to be considered legendary. All known spontaneous AMI’s lived remarkable and tragically short lives. Baby might be the only such now living. Sadly, Horss probably couldn’t allow himself the time to explore this unique person-within-an-android.

“Can you get back to the yacht and bring it here, Baby?”

“I don’t think so. That’s part of the secret. I have to do something else before I can return to the yacht.”

“What do you have to do?”

“I don’t know yet. This is an adventure, isn’t it, Captain?”

“This is a mess, Baby! Do I have to call you Baby? Don’t you have a proper name?”

“I’m thinking of Freddy as my name. What do you think?”

“Too close to Fred, isn’t it?”

“I wanted to honor my host. Fred is an ancient android and full of fascinating records of human activity. I spend a lot of time in his memory. I’m also trying to improve his algorithms, to make him better.”

“Fred isn’t alive, is he?”

“I wish he were! We could have so much fun!”

“Do you want to accompany Sugai Mai and me?”

“Yes, sir! It would be very exciting and gratifying. I want to meet Samson.”

Fred rose from his chair purposefully and took a step toward the balcony railing. Fred leaned over the railing and looked down. “We have an intruder, Captain. Someone is climbing the outside of the building. It’s Denna.”

“Who’s Denna?”

“Pan’s adopted daughter. She’s no longer a resident in this household. I’m not sure if she would be welcomed by him. I would value your opinion as to what to do, sir.”

Horss joined the android at the railing and peered down. He saw the top of a head with pale curly hair, and gloved hands reaching upward to grab and stick to the side of the building. A face with blue eyes and a smile tilted up to see him. What a smile! Horss thought.

“I don’t think you should stop her, Freddy.”

She crawled up the wall at the side of the balcony, then above the railing, then turned sideways, hugging the masonry like a human insect. She pushed blunt-toed boots onto the building’s surface, maneuvering her bare legs downward, bringing herself vertical again. Her gloves and boots were made to cling with molecular adhesion to flat surfaces. Finally she stepped down onto the deck of the balcony. She carried a small pack strapped to her waist. She was very pale and nearly naked. She glistened with perspiration. She turned around. Her smile remained, even as she breathed heavily from her exertion. Her eyes seemed sad, despite the genuine smile.

“Hello, Captain!”

Denna pulled off her gloves as she stared at Horss. Horss couldn’t find the connection between his vocabulary and his voice. Denna sat down at the table and bent to unfasten her climbing boots.

“If I interpret your silence correctly, Captain… Are you a captain? I was just guessing about your rank. If I’ve disrupted your thoughts I’m gratified as a female. I don’t often have such an effect on a man.”

“Yes, I’m a captain,” Horss managed to say. “Women don’t usually make such an entrance into my presence! Is climbing buildings a local sport?”

“From time to time. It gets boring. I usually do it naked and at night but it wasn’t quite dark and I didn’t know how you would react to that.”

“I’m sorry I raised such concern in your etiquette.”

Horss wasn’t sure of his own etiquette. When Denna started to peel off what little covering she had, Horss found himself turning away and waving his hand to signal cessation. He was not really embarrassed but there was some reason he wanted to keep the encounter less prurient. Perhaps it was Fred’s presence. Sugai Mai was also now hovering over his post-Navy existence.

Denna heeded Horss’s signal. She scraped the perspiration from her brow and mouth with the edge of her hand. Her smile became a grin and her eyes almost lost their natural sadness. “I’m soaked!” she declared. “Fred, would you please get a towel for me? I forgot to pack one.”

There was something about Denna that was immediate and vital yet placed her just out of reach, in the sense that Horss felt he would never be fully accepted into her life. There was also something vaguely familiar about her. Perhaps the eyes.

“You don’t look so dangerous, Captain,” she remarked, clearly interested in him personally.

Earth women were making a good impression on Horss. “I’m sorry I can’t uphold Navy tradition at the moment,” he said. “Please, don’t report this to my superiors.”

Denna laughed. She stopped laughing. “I haven’t laughed in such a long time!” She wiped the perspiration on her face and mouth again. “I think my smile muscles are getting tired from unaccustomed use. You are a pleasant surprise, Captain! Will you be here long? I’d like to know you better.”

“I could be here a very long time.” That prospect was looking better to Horss, both in the probability of it happening and in the company he would have if he did stay on Earth.

Fred returned quickly with a towel for Denna and Horss looked away while she dried herself. She opened her pack and took out a clump of sparkling fabric which became a dress when she held it out to unfold. She slipped it on. She stepped in front of Horss to model the garment for him.

“I have so few good clothes now. Is it too cheap? Too sexy?”

“That depends on your purpose. My assumption is that you picked the right piece in your wardrobe. Your name is Denna.”

“You know what I came for? Let’s start with your name, Captain.”

“Jon Horss. Maybe I don’t know what you came for.”

“Nothing ever happens here! Oh, maybe a few murders or suicides. But the Navy, now that’s dangerous and exciting. Are you here alone?”

“You know I’m not.”

“I heard there was a child with you.” She hesitated with such a strained expression on her face that Horss had to await her next words. “I had a child.” Denna spoke softly and slowly. She should have been speaking as her spying act required of her, but Horss could sense real pain in her voice. It was part of his skill as a captain to pick out the true meaning in the words of those speaking to him.

“You had a child?” he inquired. “Past tense? Or should I not question that?”

“It spills out when I least want it!” she said with irritation. “Yes, Daniel died.”

“I offer sympathy for your loss. Did he not live long?”

She took a deep breath and for a moment Horss thought she would not reply. He hoped she wouldn’t unburden herself too much. In the aftermath of Samson’s injury, he was not ready for more tragedy. This woman, however, could probably command anyone’s attention and anyone’s sympathy.

“He was only thirteen when he died. My husband paid so little attention to him. Daniel ran away one day. He was attacked by a tiger.”

“That’s terrible!” Horss stifled his imagination to keep it from painting an unwanted scene of horror. He wanted Mai to arrive soon and transmat with him to the old artist’s residence. But the wait was certainly filled with interesting people. People made life worth living, and made life difficult to live. He wondered if Denna realized how she affected people, how her personal tragedy gripped the feelings of any sensitive person.

“I was the one who found his remains,” she said, staring at nothing. “They took that memory away from me but they didn’t take away my imagination. It was so many years ago but I still have nightmares, even after rejuvenation.”

Horss’s memory flashed and he saw Samson’s severed leg in the corridor of the African Space Elevator. He grimaced. Denna seemed unaware of his discomfort as she walked into the residence and looked around. Horss and Fred followed her inside.

“Where is he?” Denna asked.

“Pan? He was invited to dinner.”

“We’re here alone?”

“Just the three of us.”

“Fred, go away.”

“Sir?”

“Stay,” Horss quickly said. “I need a chaperone. Do you remember her son, Fred?” It was not a question he wanted to ask. He just wanted to keep Fred near.

“We were good friends.”

/

Those four words carried enough meaning that both Horss and Denna had to stare at the android, waiting for it to continue. Freddy seemed to sense his mistake – that in his instant appraisal of Fred’s memory he had revealed a hint of sentience. He kept Fred silent.

/

Horss didn’t want to pursue the subject of children further but Denna’s pain bothered him and in his current state of mind he wished he could do something about it.

“How long ago did you know Daniel?” Horss inquired of Fred.

“Sixty-one years ago, sir.” Freddy made his voice almost too mechanical and flat.

“And after all this time you still grieve for him,” Horss said to Denna. “Why?” When Denna wouldn’t respond, he turned to Fred.

“Denna was severely damaged by the death of her son. Psychological remedies were ineffective. Subsequent events have perhaps served to maintain Denna’s state of mind. She refuses any further treatment.”

“It’s the same as death!” Denna declared. “You lose some memories you would not want to lose, despite yourself. You become someone else. But I can’t lose a memory I don’t have. And I can’t forget what I need to imagine. I am who I am. I’ll always be who I am, until I die. I won’t change. I won’t forget what is stolen from me!”

“We all become someone else eventually,” Horss said, “even without rejuvenation. You would rather be unhappy.”

“Damned right! Do you have a child, Captain Horss? Do you have any idea what I might feel about remembering my son?”

“I have an idea.” Horss thought about the daughter he could have had. He also thought about Samson.

Denna dropped onto a sofa and put her feet up on a hassock. She seemed to turn off her emotions, or at least turn them to a different polarity. “You sound pretty decent for a Navy man, Captain. Sorry for the back-handed compliment! I think you’re just plain decent.” She put her sad eyes on Fred. “Fred, I’m thirsty. Do you still do butlery around here?”

“Yes, ma’am. What would you like to drink?”

“Ice water with carbonation and a squeeze of lime.”

Fred departed for the kitchen. Horss sat down in a chair next to the sofa.

“Pan adopted you, I hear,” Horss said. “Is that something you would talk to me about?”

“I’m supposed to be asking the questions.” She was smiling again.

“Give and take,” Horss proposed.

“I had two brothers and three sisters. Does that shock you?”

“You were immigrants from Fringe Space. The authorities broke up your family.”

“You already know my story?”

“Logical deduction.”

“They did. I was twelve. I was a big twelve-year-old. I ran away. I made people think I was a rejuve, not a child. I came to Earth because there was no law here to bother me. Pan found me and tried to take care of me, and for a long time I was reasonably happy. Where did you grow up, Captain?”

“A mining camp. There were no surface-habitable bodies, not even proper habitats, just ships and rock camps in the asteroids of a distant star. I was one of eight children. Does that shock you?”

“Amazing!”

“I was the youngest. Two of my siblings died before I was born, three more before I was old enough to escape to the Navy. It was a tough life, mixing the primitive nature of our historical Earth culture with asteroid mining. You could say we were hunter-gatherers, in a sense even more primitive than the plains folk who were my ancestors on the North American continent.”

“Were you married?”

“An arranged marriage, beneficial to the cooperation between tribes. But I was very young and not wise and not patient. And I had all my older siblings to view as examples of the life ahead of me. A Navy ship stopped for supplies when I was about ten and I got to visit inside the ship. From that moment onward, I knew where I would go and what I would do when I had the chance.”

“Did you serve in the war?” Denna asked.

“I joined the Navy after the war.”

“The child, the boy. Is he yours? How old?”

“Samson is about nine. No, he isn’t mine.”

“What does he look like?”

“Skinny and sunburned. Needs a haircut. Mixed parentage: Asian and European.”

“Was he injured?”

“Yes.”

“How?”

“You wouldn’t believe me.”

“How badly?”

“I don’t think I should tell you. I’ve already made you talk about the death of your own son.”

“It was serious then.”

She’s about to weep, Horss thought. “Don’t let your imagination run away. Samson is doing fine, or he would be in the Mnro Clinic.”

“He isn’t in the Clinic? The woman. Is he with the woman officer?”

“You know about the admiral.” Horss sensed alarm in Denna’s last question. “Is something wrong?”

“She’s an admiral? Did she serve in the war?”

“She was killed in the war. Why are you interested in Admiral Demba?”

“I’m more interested in you, Captain Horss, but some friends of mine want to know if she might be Commodore Keshona. They say she looks like her.”

Horss was shocked, and that was because he almost immediately accepted that Demba could be that famous – or infamous – Navy officer. Pan had insisted Admiral Demba was the singer he had known, but he said she was also someone else, someone Horss would want to know. Every Navy officer would want to know the legendary Commodore Keshona! Every Navy officer would want to ask her how she was able to reach Rhyandh to destroy its rulers. Then he became concerned. The possibility that Demba was that historic figure seemed somehow threatening to the safety of Samson. Did Demba know she could have been Commodore Keshona?

“Your friends know what the real Keshona looked like?” Horss asked.

“They always carry what they think is an accurate image of her,” Denna replied.

“Your friends are Rhyan ex-military. Who has seen her here, to be able to tell them?”

“Jarwekh. Pan’s deputy. I’m sorry! I didn’t think those fools would do anything!”

“Do you think differently now?”

“Jarwekh knows where the admiral and the boy are. He has free use of Pan’s transmat, which is the only way to get to them. But Jarwekh would never harm the boy.”

“He isn’t the only Rhyan, is he?”

Fred returned bearing the water requested by Denna.

“What took you so long?” Denna asked, accepting the drink.

“Finding a lime. Sorry, no lime.”

“Thank you, Fred. I don’t mind plain ice water.”

“You’ve changed,” Fred commented.

“Was that a compliment or not, Fred? You have also changed! Did Daddy change your attitude toward me?”

“I choose to withdraw from this conversation, please.”

Denna cocked her head to one side, regarding Fred the android with a perplexed expression on her face. Then she shrugged and swung back to Horss. “So Daddy is probably having dinner with Admiral Etrhnk?”

“Probably.”

“You’re hiding something. Is Daddy all right?”

“As far as I know. Does she really call him Daddy?” Horss looked to Fred for the answer.

“Only when she needs something from him,” Freddy replied.

“Fred, I don’t understand why the Boss has turned you so against me,” Denna complained. “Is this for Captain Horss’s benefit? He already knows I’m working for the bad guys.”

“She calls him Boss,” Freddy said. “While I don’t think she would turn against him, she may expect him to protect himself, should her Rhyan friends go after the admiral.”

“They wouldn’t attack the admiral if they knew the Boss was with her,” Denna said. “They wouldn’t bother her at all if I had some proof she couldn’t have been Keshona.”

“Commodore Keshona has passed into legend,” Horss said, “and was protected by having her identity erased. I don’t see how there can be any proof one way or the other.”

“You think she may be Keshona!” Denna declared. “I can see it in your eyes. When you talk about her something in you changes.”

I must have lost something in the translation to this different version of myself, Horss thought. The admiral must have broken my emotional opacity mechanism. Even Pan – as preoccupied as he was – had seen what he was feeling. He realized now, more than ever, that Demba was a special person.

“Denna’s object is to keep us occupied,” Fred said, “while Jarwekh and Daidaunkh go after the admiral.”

“You may be right,” Denna said. “They insisted I come here. I just wanted to meet a Navy officer. I’m sorry!”

“Pan will likely be detained by Admiral Etrhnk,” Horss said.

“Fred, you should check the transmat,” Denna said anxiously.

Fred turned quickly toward a doorway, followed by Horss and Denna.

The Sleeper Awakes

 

The Signal came and it destroyed her.

The Clinic on Earth sampled a certain DNA identity. It sampled The Opera Master’s code on a regular basis and so she assumed that was what the alarm concerned as it routed its message to her private workstation. The musician was one of many people of special interest to the Clinic. Pan was a political refugee and the Clinic still protected him from being identified. He was also a charming, handsome man. She had always wanted to meet him, but she always denied herself the pleasure. It was a little mystery why she found him so fascinating yet could not bring herself into his presence. Perhaps it was because he never left the planet, and she was illogically afraid of the poisoned Earth.

This time, however, the genetic identity was not the Opera Master’s and the alarm was much more urgent. The message seemed to trip switches in her mind to release data to her brain. The process became predictable to her as it occurred, easing the anxiety it first produced. Then the data became startlingly familiar, being facts and memories she caused herself to forget. The facts bludgeoned her and rebuilt her anxiety. The memories were at once powerful and wonderful and deadly. She needed to send a Denial of Service to the Earth Clinic, without explanation. She needed to leave work. She needed to go home and consider the meaning of this development.

= = =

She toured her residence while she contemplated what little remained of her future. She knew the tour was an unconscious acceptance of her fate, even though she told herself otherwise. As the tour progressed, so did her acceptance of her duty. She avoided the heavy gravity paths, skipping softly in the moon’s light gravity, examining the everyday objects that had journeyed the centuries with her. She had mementos, replicas of art, and awards: treasures of memory from a thousand places, a thousand moments. She kept nothing of commercial or intrinsic value in her home. The Mnro Clinics kept those objects of physical or cultural value in its museum. She, more than anyone, knew the value of the captured moment, the memory. Memory was priceless. Memory was life.

She wandered the grounds of the estate and the paths through the gardens. She marveled at the flowers and trees as though seeing them for the first time. Every time she met one of the staff she greeted them warmly, knowing she would never see them again. The artificial day faded into a night illuminated by the smile of the crescent Earth. She stared for a long time at Earth hanging above the crater’s jagged rim, before turning back inside.

She descended into the crust of the moon. The elevator dropped quietly, deeply, slowed imperceptibly, and only when the door opened did she realize she had arrived at her destination: her tomb. She walked down a carpeted hallway past vault-like doors until she reached the door at the end. The heavy door opened at her approach, sliding quietly to one side. Lighting awakened in a soft glow. A window appeared in the far wall of the small room. As she touched a pattern on the wall next to the window, the glass thinned to nonexistence. Moisture entered the arid room through the opening.

She looked down into the pool beyond the window, brought the illumination up slowly, until she could see the swimmer. The swimmer stopped and floated, pale, naked, hairless, eyes open but not seeing, not conscious yet anticipating something. She touched a control and the swimmer convulsed slightly, the eyes went shut, the arms and legs folded into a fetal position.

She used an automatic appliance to remove the hair from her head and neck. She connected herself to a signal transducer that anesthetized and penetrated to establish connections to her brain. She closed her eyes and let the memories flow. The swimmer clutched at its umbilical cord and bent its head farther forward, a grimace on its mouth. Centuries passed between their brains. She touched another control and the pool began to drain. The swimmer followed the liquid level down with its mouth until it had no more liquid to breath. It coughed several times, discharging fluid from its lungs, taking in air for the first time in ages.

She leaned tiredly on the sill of the window as she peeled the signal appliance carefully from her head and neck and stored it away. She rested her chin on her hands, her elbows on the sill, and waited for the swimmer to awaken. Presently, groans and more coughing came from the swimmer in the empty pool. Its white body shivered. Finally, after a long clearing of the throat, the swimmer spoke.

“So soon?”

“A couple of centuries.”

“Too long, then.”

“Not necessarily. Let your chemistry stabilize and you’ll think more clearly.”

The flood of data paralyzed the swimmer for several minutes. She watched and waited for the swimmer to survive the avalanche of information from her instant rebirth into adulthood. She admired the youthful trim and tone of the body with the acuity of a genetic architect.

“The signal came!” the swimmer declared. “How long do we have?”

“Not very long.”

“How long exactly?”

“I don’t know. Curiously, there’s no exact departure date for the Galactic Hub Mission. It could be in a week or in a month. Probably not sooner or later than that.”

“The signal came from Earth. Why Earth, I wonder?”

“At least it’s convenient. The umbilical has released you.”

“I’m bleeding. It will stop quickly. I’m old-fashioned in how I want my body to look. How do you look? Do you still look human after all this time?”

“Don’t I ever look in the mirror? Come up and see.”

The swimmer struggled upward, smearing blood on the white surface of the empty pool. She grasped handholds made for her use, and her head rose above the sill of the window.

“Are bald women back in fashion?” the swimmer asked.

“Welcome back to life, Aylis Mnro,” Aylis Mnro said to the swimmer.

The Singer Awakes

 

She followed and watched. The stars drifted by. Instruments measured and recorded. Solitude enveloped her. The starship Titanic sailed ahead of her, sailing to the inward galactic frontier. Her little ship, the Demba, had made the trip many times but this time she flew with an improved starlight drive, its cleaner envelope making her invisible to all but the most sensitive detectors. He requested it. She didn’t hesitate to oblige, even though the delay and the expense meant no profit and a delayed freight load. The broker had threatened to drop her.

His wife and child sailed aboard the Titanic, the first time in a decade a large ship dared to take such a route. She didn’t understand what she could do if anything happened. She didn’t know what he suspected might happen. She didn’t understand why he would let his family travel on a ship that might encounter trouble. She could have transported them aboard her own ship. She had suggested that. She thought he had agreed to it, but by the time she reached their port of departure, the Titanic had sailed with his wife and child aboard.

She regretted not having the companionship on this trip. She hated the loneliness. She couldn’t even sing now, for fear of missing some audible warning from the instruments. Three women on the Demba would have required more maintenance for life support in the tiny crew quarters but they would have had fun together. She liked Susan and Fidelity. Apparently Fidelity did not like her.

She never saw the first few anomalies. Only when the Titanic lost its starlight drive did she discover their existence. Spherical objects blinked in and out of space, appearing to jump out of sight and into sight, so great was their acceleration. She lowered her velocity, keeping a safe distance from the big starship. Now she could see the jumping globes against the scale of the starliner. They measured no larger than her own ship but they numbered over a hundred. Seconds later another thousand joined the hundred, forming a cloud of dark spheres that all but occluded the Titanic.

She reversed course to reduce the risk of discovery. Even as she slowed to a stop, another ten thousand spheres jumped into the cluster and completely enveloped the starship. She could do nothing but watch and record. A distant cloud of ionized gas provided scant visual illumination for the scene before her. Her telescopes scanned the many sources of energy and recorded them in many wavelengths.

Nothing seemed to happen for a long time. She missed it when the little ships disappeared. She had to play back and enhance the images. In less than a heartbeat the storm of small spheres had vanished, not all at once but nearly so. So, too, did the Titanic disappear – that is, it did not reappear when the cloud of spheres departed. Nothing remained but empty space.

Forty-three thousand passengers, one hundred million tons of ship and cargo – and Susan and Fidelity – were gone without a trace.

“What are you thinking about?” Samson inquired.

She had to call on the steel person within her to disengage from the vision. Hopefully Samson couldn’t see the reaction on her face, the astonishment, the tears, and the terror. This was a most powerful – memory? – image? – vividly detailed, implicitly vital, both personally and in some greater context. Impossible enemy ships, discontinuous in flight, as deadly to a starship as was a school of piranhas to a cow fording their river. She heard names, already trying to evaporate from her memory: Demba, Fidelity, Susan. The first two were her names, that of a ship and that of a person she must have known. Who was Susan? She could no longer set these mental events apart from the current outer reality of her life. These powerful internal cinemas must converge on who she once was and what she was destined to do.

“Something I remembered from a long time ago,” she finally answered Samson’s question.

She shook herself, both mentally and physically, to cast off the paralysis of powerful emotion. Just by being here, Samson brought her back to here-and-now, and eased her suffering. The dream continued to evaporate, but the disappearance of the Titanic was an event known to her from history, and she would not lose that connection to the escaping images.

She willed herself to be what she was not – not now, not yet: a mother.

“I’m also thinking you need a bath,” she said. “You smell like Gator.”

“I’ll just stand out in the rain,” Samson said, smiling mischievously.

“That will be a good start. Then I’ll put you in the bath.”

“Do I have to?”

“If you want to sleep in my bed. What’s wrong with taking a bath?”

“I just had one yesterday!”

“You used up that bath before breakfast!”

“I never used to take a bath!”

“How proud you are of that fact!”

= = =

She studied Rafael’s painting of her. He hopped over to her side and grabbed her arm to maintain his balance. Fidelity put her hand on Samson’s shoulder and pulled him against her hip. His hair was still wet from his bath. They stood there in silence for several minutes. The last of the rain dripped off the roof and rattled on the palm fronds outside the screened porch. Rich green humidity thickened the evening air. The sketches Rafael had made of her and Samson had impressed her: an immediate proof of the power of his talent. In so few strokes of a pencil Rafael could evoke deep meaning and strong emotion. She thought he over-dramatized reality, yet she conceded certain elements of truth. She was learning to care for Samson, even as a mother cares for her child: that was in the sketches. She was shocked that it had been so obvious to Rafael. She guessed Rafael also found something potent for himself in the image she had presented to him. He gave her the yellow dress, in which he had painted many portraits of his wife – his most famous series of paintings. She reminded him of his wife, perhaps. But even Samson seemed to have a special meaning for Rafael. She began to understand Pan’s reason for sending her and Samson to the old artist. It was not a correct reason but it was a powerful reason.

As evocative as the sketches were, they did not prepare her for the portrait that now transfixed her.

“I like it,” Samson said of the portrait. “That’s what you look like. Those are your eyes.”

The oil painting was not yet finished but it sent chills down her body, all the way to her ankles. Was that really her? Was she smiling or not? It was not a Mona Lisa expression, just… undecided, unfinished, awaiting judgment, hopeless and hopeful, and how many other potential human conditions of feeling, of being, of becoming?

“I don’t know!” She sought some release from the unbearable flattery of the beautiful image. “It’s his idea of me. He must think I’m much more than I am. But it’s a fascinating portrait… of someone. Did you wash everywhere?”

= = =

Samson snored lightly, finally asleep after a long battle against the dark forces of fatigue. She rose quietly from the bed, trying to shush Gator, whose tail gave a loud thump before he arose to lie down again closer to the bed. She went outside and walked through the wet grass, back to another building where she saw light through north-facing windows on the roof. She entered and found Rafael sitting on a stool, looking through a stack of art canvases. He looked up and smiled, and shoved the paintings aside.

She rescued the paintings after they tipped onto the floor. Touching them… These were probably the originals! Rafael’s originals! Why was he so careless with his work? She looked at each picture, placing it carefully on a shelf with other paintings. Paintings filled many shelves. Sculpture occupied most of the remaining storage space. She looked at as much as she could, pausing often to show a work to Rafael. She could put a title to almost every painting.

“How do you know the titles of all those?” Rafael asked. “Even I don’t remember them all!”

“I don’t know! I’m no longer connected to the Navy data network. This is in my personal data augment.”

“And yet there are so many things you can’t remember.”

“You assume I have many things I might remember. This is just data, not memory. All I need is a key to unlock a piece of data. I see a painting and suddenly the title is there. In many cases the record has more facts about each piece of art. I was always interested in your work. I own at least three replicas.”

“These are all originals. You can have whatever you would like of my art, Fidelity.”

“You can’t mean that, Rafael! And you know it’s illegal to own originals.”

“And you know how collectors ignore the law! They are idiots. The soul of the picture is what is important, not the material of its reality. And there is no significant difference between the original and the replicas nowadays, so I don’t worry about it. But with a fresh signature on them, that might make them more valuable to you, personally. No one would ever know. Please, take your pick. But there is a small price.”

"What -"

“Two small prices. Don’t let them revive me, should I die in your presence.”

“I’m sorry I’ve brought danger to you, but that’s a very large price, Rafael.”

“I’m not concerned about danger. One never knows how many more seconds remain in his life. All I ask is for you to do what you can. If I’m rejuvenated, I’ll be someone else. Maybe that person won’t regret losing the gift of art, or perhaps he’ll learn a different thing to do with his life. It won’t be a real tragedy but we all have to die the final death sometime.”

“I’ll respect your wishes, Rafael, but I probably won’t be with you much longer.”

“You will be with me forever! The second price is: sing for me.”

She made the smallest gesture with her hands, the steel in her failing to stop an emotion, a rise in anxiety. She didn’t want to know she could sing. She couldn’t afford to be Ruby Reed, not now. “Rafael. Did Pan ask you to do this?”

“I’ve known Pan most of my life, Fidelity. He’s my best friend. I want to do this for him. But I also want you to sing for me!”

“It was in another lifetime I might have been this singer. I don’t remember her. I shouldn’t remember her. How could I retain any trace of her talent?”

“Before he departed today Pan found recordings in his datasphere. He said they were hidden away! They were performances of Ruby Reed. I’m sorry I let them slip out of my own life! Let me play one of them for you.”

She did not want to hear it, but she said: “That should be… interesting.”

“Pan recommended them to me decades ago. Why would he have forgot them, and forgot Ruby Reed? How could he have ever forgot such a great singer? That has been his life’s work! I know I listened to the songs hundreds of times. In a way, you helped me paint many of my best pieces. I can even remember some of those I painted to your music, and I can assure you my art would have been very different – and not as good – without hearing your voice as I painted.”

“Rafael… this is… difficult to… Are you sure? I helped you paint?”

“You admit you were Ruby Reed?”

It seemed possible. She was already too many people – why not another? But it frightened her, further diverted her, and further diluted her.

“I’m confused, Rafael. I don’t know who I am! This is a dangerous condition in which to be. But I may not be able to escape it. Perhaps I should try to determine if I was her, and deal with it now, while it’s safer.”

“I’ve just been listening to one of the songs,” Rafael said, enthused by his success with her. “Let me sing a little of it, Fidelity. Perhaps you will also remember it.” He cleared his throat a couple of times. He smiled and stroked his small white beard, then broke into song with a strong voice. He stopped after a few bars. “I can’t remember any more of the words. I used to know at least a dozen of the songs, and I would sing by myself as I painted.”

“Do it again,” she asked. She dared, only because she had the steel person inside her to fall back on.

Rafael sang again, then as the lyrics escaped him he hummed.

She now knew the lyrics, plucked from her data augment. Why are they stored there? She began to sing, very softly at first, half speaking the words, half singing, and ever more rapidly running through the entire song. Excitement and dread dueled in her chest, her heart racing. She stopped and looked at Rafael who seemed terribly expectant of her. She closed her eyes. She went back to the beginning of the song, started softly, picked her way carefully, listening to the words and understanding their meaning. She willed herself to relax. When she finished, she shook her head, dissatisfied, embarrassed.

“Bravo!” Rafael applauded. “You’re amazing! Another song!”

“That wasn’t good! There’s an art to singing. I can output the correct words and notes but I don’t know the art. Even art isn’t enough. There’s something else one needs and I don’t know what it is.”

“That isn’t important right now! You do sound like Ruby Reed! I kept waiting for you to do the little things with your voice that she did. You’re correct – there’s something missing – and you knew that without hearing the recordings. I don’t know if you can sing like she did, but I think you have the potential.”

“You believe I was Ruby Reed, Rafael?”

“I do! But why would you forget who you were? Don’t those who have full rejuvenation still remember who they were, even though so many memories are lost from both the brain and the body?”

“I died in the war, Rafael. I believed I had lost all memories. I can’t explain what’s happening. Do you have another song I can try?”

“Let me play what was Pan’s favorite song. I’ve just remembered it.”

Rafael called to an information system in his studio and spoke his selection. The admiral took a step backward involuntarily when she heard the first few bars of the instrumental accompaniment – piano and string bass – shocked how familiar and how important the hint of melody seemed. Her hand went to the back of her neck. A feeling of momentary panic solidified into near paralysis. She closed her eyes. She struggled free of the paralysis and turned around several times, as something complex and powerful grew inside her and claimed a large portion of her total being. She put her face in her hands. Then came the voice of Ruby Reed from the recording and the admiral threw open her arms and mouthed the lyrics with her eyes still closed, forced to do it, not wanting to do it. Echoes of a hundred times she might have sung the song reverberated through her mind and body, growing flesh and spirit into a person who loved to sing.

As she began to sing along with the recording, Rafael reduced the volume of the recording so that Fidelity’s voice could not be mistaken. She sang with the recording, her voice alive and rich with timbre and meaning, gliding effortlessly through melody. Something pushed it out of her with a quiet fury and a need for release. She understood the heart of the song and what it meant to convey. She sang without any conscious effort to perform the mechanics of the art. She sang only for herself and for the song. When she finished she wiped her moist eyes and smiled at the beauty in her ability to make music.

She opened her eyes and saw the big Rhyan standing behind Rafael.

She closed her eyes and saw…

Dinner with Etrhnk

 

“It’s over. The shadow government has accepted our terms.”

He stood at a glass window that gave a view of an arid plain sloping upward to a far spine of sharp peaks. He didn’t respond to her. He didn’t want to look at her. He didn’t want her to see his face.

“Where is your mother?” she asked. “She wasn’t with the shadow government.”

He handed her a plastic card without turning to look at her. It was the same window from which his gentle mother waved at him for the last time. It was always the “farewell” window.

“This is her transponder. She isn’t here? She left her transponder here and went somewhere?”

He nodded. He still could not turn to look at her and he still knew her voice, her wonderful voice. So wrong! She was not who she should be, and that was also tearing him apart.

“When?” she prompted. “Not before The Procedure, I hope.”

The Procedure: what profanity to call it that! Millions of tiny bombs, materializing from orbit, seeking out places and individuals, exploding without regard for the innocent, for the children, for the cultural artifacts. He tried to clear his throat but couldn’t. He spoke anyway, knowing what that would reveal to her. “I told her what I thought would happen, the last time I saw her. She was appalled. Even though she felt the need of it, I don’t think she could justify any loss of life. We discussed the ethics of it for a long time. Finally, I told her the mismanagement of the Rhyan Empire wasn’t the most important threat to the Union. We were, in effect, unwilling instruments of a greater threat. And we would proceed at any cost and at any risk.”

“What greater threat? I don’t understand your reference. She left the transponder here, so that you would think her safe at home?”

Tears filled his eyes, so that when he finally forced himself to look at her, he couldn’t see her clearly. Emotion overwhelmed him. He hated that she, of all people, should see it.

“I suspect she was with the largest group of nobility. My mother probably tried to arrange the meeting in that isolated estate in order to minimize collateral deaths. She intended to die with them, rather than live with the guilt of killing anyone.”

She seemed to ignore his emotion and discount his words, hard as it was to utter them. “We’ll begin a search for her,” Commodore Keshona said. “We hoped she would lead the new government.”

Time, he knew, would eventually distance him from the pain of this moment. Probably neither of them would be allowed to remember any of it. He could not imagine ever again wanting to hear the voice of Commodore Keshona.

“I killed my mother,” he said to himself, and to God.

Pan stumbled, emerging from the scan chamber after he was winked aboard the Navy flagship. Tortured thoughts and blistering emotional residue interfered with his coordination.

“Is something wrong?” the Navy Commander inquired.

Nothing is right! I helped Keshona – Demba – annihilate millions of my people! More than Keshona, those Rhyan soldiers such as Jarwekh and Daidaunkh should seek vengeance upon me! This fading indictment led to a question: How, exactly, did he help Keshona? The answer crept into his mind as a vague notion of a vast machine, mauled him with its impossibility, and introduced him to yet another person for whose safety he would now be responsible: his brother. He had a brother. And a dead mother, a different dead mother, not the one he thought he remembered.

Pan walked unsteadily with Admiral Etrhnk down a passageway in the Navy flagship Eclipse. He willed himself to clear his mind for battle. Etrhnk was the enemy. Any small word or gesture on his part could doom himself and everyone he knew. He had to respond without knowing how to avoid catastrophe.

“My internal landscape just shifted, Admiral,” Pan responded weakly. “I have no control over when I’m subjected to a new memory.”

“Why would this be happening to you?” Etrhnk asked.

“I don’t know.” It was almost a lie. He did not know, but he knew there had to be a reason. He and Demba could not have met by accident, could not be suffering similarly by pure coincidence. And the phrases they had spoken to each other he now knew were used when she was Keshona, when he came to offer her the means to destroy the Rhyan Empire. He and his brother had built a machine that made her small task force supremely deadly.

“You have no theory?” Etrhnk prompted.

“I would not offer you one in my present state of mind,” Pan hopelessly replied.

“I was looking forward to hearing what these memories were,” Etrhnk said, his implied disappointment becoming a threat.

“They often evaporate before I can retain the details,” Pan tried to explain, “leaving me with only forceful but blurred impressions.”

Etrhnk waved Pan ahead of him to enter an intraship conveyance. Pan took his time, steadying himself and sitting down in the small sleek car. He had killed his own mother! She had helped him do it: Demba, Ruby Reed. Keshona. She was Keshona! He seemed to have denied the meaning of that fact, excused her – excused himself – from the shame and guilt of what he now saw as a crime.

Etrhnk sat down facing Pan and the conveyance moved off through the ship. The vehicle canopy opaqued as they entered a tube, then cleared when the vehicle crossed above a scenic commons. The Eclipse was a huge ship, a city that sailed among the stars.

Admiral Etrhnk was silent for the moment, even though the quiet vehicle afforded him time and privacy for interrogation. Etrhnk watched him with dark and predatory eyes. There was no malice in those eyes, just the promise of relentless pursuit of his prey.

Pan had made up his mind that he could not lie about the facts or omit anything about the two Navy officers. But he would not offer his own interpretation of any facts. And if Etrhnk tried to get at this last eruption of his mind, then he had to resist. It felt like a true memory and one that should never be revealed. It was one reason why Commodore Keshona was legendary, because only he – and his brother – knew how Keshona was able to decapitate the Rhyan Empire. The technology must never fall into the hands of a Navy commanded by such people as Etrhnk.

Pan tried to appear calm and interested in the interior view of the Navy flagship. He could think of nothing to ask and nothing on which to comment, and so the in-ship journey proceeded silently.

The tube car came to a stop at a rather more impressive station. Many Marines, heavily armed yet resplendently dressed, populated the large intersection of passageways. The walls were smooth and curved, their surfaces sectioned in several shades of gray, perhaps designating areas of specialized functions. This was a warship, and Pan knew the construction provided for every extreme situation that might occur, but this part of the ship was very refined in concealing its military functions.

Etrhnk led him into a short passageway directly across from the transport terminal and between two of the Marines. The Marines came to attention with a slow and simultaneous precision, every movement choreographed fluidly and ending in precisely rendered salutes. Etrhnk seemed to pay them no attention and did not return the salutes. The end of the passageway dematerialized and Pan followed into a room that was white on ceiling and three walls, black on the floor and fourth wall, and contained a black wood table and chairs. The one black wall was the black of space, an image screen which showed crescent Earth and moon floating in the void.

Pan sat at the table when Etrhnk gestured toward it. The Navy Commander stood for a moment, perhaps tending to some business that came into his shiplink augment. Etrhnk pulled another chair from the dark table and sat down opposite Pan. Pan removed his recording of the African Space Elevator fight and pushed it across the table to Etrhnk.

“A recording you will find interesting,” Pan said. Pan’s heart was racing with his emotions.

“It was detected and downloaded,” Etrhnk responded. “Please tell me what it contains. I’ll view it later.”

“Two Navy officers. The top floor of the African Space Elevator. They are fighting. Admiral Demba kills Captain Horss.”

If Pan expected Etrhnk to have some reaction to his words, he would have been disappointed. He wasn’t disappointed. Etrhnk, an elite Essiin, hid his inner self better than any Essiin Pan had ever known. That Demba, an elderly female admiral confined to sedate duties of data management, could defeat a Navy champion in personal combat should provoke a response great enough to at least cause comment. Etrhnk merely waited for Pan to continue.

“There is also a boy,” Pan added, expecting, for some reason, a noticeable response from the Navy Commander.

“A boy?” Etrhnk did not even raise an eyebrow, but the query was itself a significant response. “As in male child?”

“His name is Samson. He’s about nine years old. Admiral Demba found him near the space elevator. She and Horss followed him into the pedestal building, where he was seriously injured.”

Pan stopped, hoping Etrhnk would ask questions, so that he would not have to volunteer more information than what was asked of him.

“Continue,” Etrhnk ordered, as though knowing Pan’s strategy.

Pan related all the facts he knew, eventually including what Horss told him of the Request for Voluntary Reassignment. Pan wanted to ask his own questions but dared not. What would it gain him to know of Etrhnk’s reactions and his real attitude toward Demba? What would his questions reveal to Etrhnk if he asked them? There were no arguments to change the Navy Commander’s judgments. And such information could come at the cost of his own life. If he learned that his life was already a penalty to pay, then Pan would ask some questions. Etrhnk took a long time to think about what Pan had told him, and that was Pan’s only clue to the importance Etrhnk gave any of it.

“Ruby Reed,” Etrhnk said at last, leaning back in his chair and tapping the table, once only, with the image-chip Pan had given him. “Tell me what you remember of her.” It was slightly encouraging that Etrhnk found the “Admiral Demba and Ruby Reed” relationship worth his time.

“I’ve remembered many moments,” Pan said, “but the details tend to fade rapidly. She was a nice person but she was often sad. She abused alcohol. She had a great talent but no ambition to become rich and famous.”

“You were emotionally involved with her,” Etrhnk stated, and waited in expectation. It was a promising thought for Etrhnk to have, yet Pan disliked sharing his newly-found emotional treasures.

“I’m sure I was,” Pan replied, and the stimulus of Etrhnk’s query rewarded him with a brief series of scenes with the pale Ruby Reed that paralyzed him with profound feelings. Pan recovered, and Etrhnk seemed infinitely patient with Pan’s momentary departure. “The feelings,” Pan resumed speaking, “are what survive the flashbacks best. I felt very strongly about her. I wanted to protect her. I wanted her to be happy. I sense that I must have failed.”

“Tell me about Admiral Demba.”

Pan recounted his two meetings with the admiral, omitting the phrases they had unwillingly spoken in the manner of spies identifying each other. Nor did he mention the mental episode she experienced, proving to Pan that she was also having flashbacks like his.

“How does Demba relate to the boy?” Etrhnk asked.

It was a topic Pan did not want to approach. He was sure Demba had an interest in Samson beyond the pure mystery of him. It was a relationship too vulnerable to whatever Etrhnk might do. It was almost as if Samson represented the possible happiness he had always wanted to give to Ruby Reed. Demba seemed to need an emotional lift. She had been nearly as emotionless as Etrhnk when he first met her, but now he saw – or imagined – much more in her.

“I would not presume to know, Admiral,” Pan dared limit his response.

“They are together now,” Etrhnk stated. “At the home of Rafael de LaGuardia. Why?”

“I sent them there for Rafael’s benefit.”

“What benefit?”

“To keep Rafael alive.” Pan waited for the next question, but Etrhnk also waited. “Rafael has lost interest in living,” Pan added. “I thought the admiral and the boy would disturb him enough to change his outlook.”

“And did it?”

“It certainly made him draw and paint.” Pan could see the pencil sketches and the oil portrait of the admiral in his mind and barely suppressed a shudder of awe. He had always regarded Rafael as a truly great artist, but this last portrait made him feel foolish in his amateur judgment of Rafael’s talent. When the rest of humanity saw this work, Rafael would seize his rightful place among the immortals of art.

“He did well?” Etrhnk probably gained that assumption by every signal of Pan’s body from all the equipment that must be monitoring him.

Pan nodded. “Demba proved to be an inspiration to him. His portrait of her is beyond comparison. The best he has ever done.”

“The personal opinion of a close friend,” Etrhnk stated quietly. Pan almost missed the challenge.

“I was shocked,” Pan said succinctly, “at what I saw going onto the canvas. I stayed most of the day, watching Rafael perform magic.” Pan took a breath. “He also made sketches of Demba and Samson that were extremely evocative. Yes, mine is a prejudiced opinion. I’m sorry. I should restrain my emotional statements in your presence.”

“You also are an artist. It is your nature.” Etrhnk paused to respond silently to a shiplink message. “Dinner is served. Let us eat.”

Pan was hungry, as he had forgotten to eat lunch. They went to an adjoining room where the dinner was set for them on an antique table under a crystal chandelier. Etrhnk asked him to select a piece of music as background. He almost enjoyed the food, and Etrhnk did not mix interrogation with the meal. He suspected Etrhnk used the time to study everything he told him, played back through his shiplink. They took glasses of wine back to the stark black and white room and listened to an Essiin composition chosen by Etrhnk. It seemed the Navy Commander was delaying what would come next. Pan was certain he had not exhausted his topics of interest. When Etrhnk resumed, Pan was almost startled. The music stopped.

“Your name was Harry.”

“Yes.”

“I found that name linked to Ruby Reed. Harry Jones, a very old and common English name. There was another member of the trio – Richard, nicknamed Dick. No biographical data. Stage names, I assume. Do you remember what happened to Harry?”

“No. I had forgot… Dick…”

Another memory assaulted him and confused him. Dick was his brother but there was something wrong in how he remembered him. Then the images flew away, relieving him of their intensity and their threatening content.

“Another flashback?” Etrhnk inquired.

“Yes.”

“I had the scan chamber sample you genetically. It appears that Harry was half Rhyan, whoever he was.”

“Yes.” Pan felt his heart sink and send its signal to every detector in the room.

“Have you remembered anything about your parents?” Etrhnk asked.

“Yes. My mother. She died in Keshona’s attack.”

“If you are Harry, you are old enough to have had at least one full rejuvenation. By a Mnro Clinic. Do you see the implication?”

“The Mnro Clinic record – and my Citizen Record – must be in error,” Pan admitted.

“I think the Mnro Clinic has sampled your identity enough times to have your correct data. It is, therefore, hiding something.”

“The director of the Earth Mnro Clinic is an insistent friend,” Pan responded, now even more worried about Sugai Mai. “I’m often checked even when I don’t see the need. Their excuse is that I live on a poisoned planet. Yes, I see that as a logical deduction – it is hiding something.”

“In between the time of Ruby Reed and Harry Jones and your current traceable history lies the Rhyan War,” Etrhnk said. “A blank spot, except you remember your mother died in the Massacre. Is that all you remember?”

“I was in the war. That is what my latest memories involve.”

“In what capacity?”

“Those are memories I will not describe for you.”

“You disappoint me.”

“I knew I would.”

“You were Rhyan military?”

Pan took a long sip of his wine and set the glass down.

“Thank you for dinner, Admiral,” Pan said.

Collateral Death

 

She closed her eyes and saw…

“It’s over. The shadow government has accepted our terms.”

He stood at a glass window that gave a view of an arid rural vista. He didn’t respond. She knew something was wrong. She knew everything was wrong. “Where is your mother? She was not with the shadow government.”

He handed her a plastic card. She knew what it was and what it meant. Helplessly, she asked the questions that would verify and finalize tragedy. “This is her transponder. She isn’t here? She left her transponder here and went somewhere?”

He nodded. He wouldn’t look at her. She couldn’t see his face, and that was probably best. The military procedure was quite distant and abstract, until now. “When? Not before the procedure, I hope.”

He cleared his throat. When he spoke he sounded resigned, but no less grief-stricken. “I told her what I thought would happen, the last time I saw her. She was appalled. Even though she felt the need of it, I don’t think she could justify any loss of life. We discussed the ethics of it for a long time. Finally I told her the mismanagement of the Rhyan Empire wasn’t the most important threat to the Union. We were, in effect, unwilling instruments of a greater threat. And we would proceed at any cost and at any risk.”

She turned away from him, spoke to the empty room in the house where he was a child. It was strange that she felt nothing, yet she knew what she should feel. “What greater threat? I don’t understand your reference. She left the transponder here, so that you would think her safe at home?”

“I suspect she was with that largest group of nobility. My mother probably tried to arrange their meeting in the isolated estate in order to minimize collateral deaths. I suspect she intended to die with them, rather than live with the guilt of killing anyone.”

It mattered greatly to her that this young man should know how wrong she felt all of this was. She knew it would forever poison their relationship. Fortunately, neither of them would be allowed to remember any of this.

“We’ll begin a search for her. We hoped she would lead the new government.”

“I killed my mother,” he said.

She pressed fingers against her eyelids and willed the years to pass.

She blinked. The light of another day went dark. The light of the studio entered her eyes. Rafael still sat on a stool surrounded by his paintings and sculpture. The Rhyan who took Samson in the morning still stood behind Rafael. Time restarted.

“My God!” Rafael exclaimed. “How can you still sing so well?”

Fidelity didn’t understand Rafael’s words, not hearing them above the clamor of her thoughts: her reaction to the flashback she just had. Was it a real memory that belonged to her, that spoke a truth of her past? She didn’t want to believe it but it, like the other visions, contained a pain that seemed to fit her, like a well-earned punishment. She felt agony and grief to discover who she had been. It was not a total surprise, for she had some warning of the possibility from a source she had tried to ignore. She took several moments to gather herself together, then managed to speak.

“Good evening, Jarwekh,” she greeted the looming Rhyan.

“Good evening, Admiral Demba,” Jarwekh rumbled.

Rafael turned around, surprised to see the big Rhyan. “Jarwekh! Isn’t Pan with you?”

“He didn’t come. He was invited to dinner. I believe he’s aboard the Navy flagship.”

“Etrhnk is here,” Fidelity said, tasting the name of doom. So soon would she be held to account for her sin against the Navy Commander. So soon would she lose Samson.

“That is my understanding,” Jarwekh said. “I saw Pan’s communications log.”

She remembered the Rhyan was a deputy for Pan and had access to his dwelling. “And Captain Horss?” she asked.

“He remains at the residence. He doesn’t know I’m here.”

“Why are you here?” She asked the question because she was impatient. Jarwekh seemed in no hurry to do what she guessed he might do. She had seen the tattoos on his arms, knew he was in the Rhyan military at the time of the war. He had been a member of an elite unit serving the royal families, a unit that was almost totally destroyed in what the Rhyans called The Massacre.

“There was a question I wanted to ask,” he replied in his deep voice.

She knew what the question was. What perfect timing, that her memory of Pan and the death of his mother had just assaulted her, proving beyond doubt that the steel person within her was Keshona, murderer of millions of Rhyans. A moment of silence extended to more silent moments, without Jarwekh continuing.

“You want to know if I am Keshona,” Fidelity said. She was puzzled and irritated that the Rhyan couldn’t bring forth what must be of unique importance to him. They stared at each other: ancient enemies, testing the separation between them, to see if it was a battlefield or a cemetery. It seemed unfair that she must inherit this burden of a crime she committed as another person. Curiously, the big Rhyan still didn’t set off alarms in her defense system.

“Why would he ask that question?” Rafael wondered, a troubled surprise on his wrinkled face.

“How would you anticipate such a question?” Jarwekh asked. “Unless…”

“Apparently I bear some resemblance to the commodore,” Fidelity said, “even though official images of her no longer exist. There are a few young female Navy officers who identify me as Keshona, perhaps for the purpose of finding meaning in otherwise boring lives. They often visited Archives to catch a glimpse of me. It was annoying.” She turned to Rafael. “As to why Jarwekh asks the question – it’s the duty of every surviving Rhyan soldier to seek vengeance upon the person who killed so many of their people. I believe they always carry a picture of Keshona with them.”

“Let me see it!” Rafael demanded.

“I no longer carry it,” Jarwekh said. “I thought I remembered her features.”

Rafael looked at Fidelity and back at the tall Rhyan, seeming to plead with each of them. “She can’t be Keshona! She’s a great singer, not a mass murderer!”

“She is indeed a great singer,” Jarwekh agreed. He breathed deeply, then relaxed. “I would hate for her to also be Keshona. I didn’t ask the question. I don’t expect an answer. I don’t need to know. I don’t need vengeance. I think the fire went out of me when I was killed by Pan and rejuvenated. For a brief while today I thought I had the fire again. I’m afraid I gave some provocative news to another who still burns. So let my unspoken question be a warning. He will speak the question and will not even need your answer. But I’ve heard you sing and I prefer to believe you are the singer Pan seeks, not the murderer who destroyed my family. I am ashamed and dishonored for my actions.”

Jarwekh backed slowly toward the night. Fidelity was shocked, as the praise of her singing began to have meaning for her. How could she be that good as a singer, so good that she may have stopped an execution attempt? She held up a hand to keep Jarwekh from leaving. She responded to the big Rhyan emotionally, strangely grateful to be called a great singer, as though that should have special meaning for her. But she had received the first evidence of her crime from within her own self and knew she was guilty.

“Tell him nothing!” Rafael pleaded. “Or tell him you’re not Keshona!”

She looked sadly at Rafael as she spoke to Jarwekh. “Here is the truth, Jarwekh. I may have been Keshona. I don’t trust yet what I think are my lost memories, memories I should not have if I truly died in the war. What I want to believe is that too many people have wasted their lives hating a person who should never have wanted to do what she did. The body of that person may stand before you, but whoever I am, even though I accept the guilt and the punishment, I’m not her.”

Jarwekh came out of the dark beyond the doorway and stared at Fidelity for a long time. Rafael rose to stand between him and Fidelity. Jarwekh towered over the old man. Finally Jarwekh seemed to come to a decision and his posture relaxed again.

“I was always large,” Jarwekh said, placing a hand gently on Rafael’s shoulder. “I could bully others because of it. My mother kept warning me to stay out of trouble. She always told me to put myself in the shoes of a smaller person and try to imagine how they would feel. I lacked that sensitivity for some time. My father told me that, big as I was, there was always someone bigger, and that I would learn a painful lesson one day. I did. Only then did my sensitivity develop. Only then did I begin to see that others were as full of life and desire as I was.

“I’ve spent a lifetime trying to imagine what kind of person would kill ten million Rhyan, including my parents. I dared imagine the person could be no different from me, but simply unfortunate to have been given the task. I never imagined a wonderful singer could have done that evil deed. If she did, I forgive her, because I know she suffered for it and truly couldn’t have ever wanted to do it. Good night, Admiral Demba, Rafael.”

Jarwekh disappeared into the night.

“Damn,” Rafael swore. “Damn!” For a long time he stood looking at the darkness beyond the doorway. When he turned back around Fidelity awaited his reaction. From now on she would always expect judgment and loss. She who never had friends would always have none. He looked away from her, then frowned and met her gaze. “I always make the mistake of falling in love with an image of the person and not wanting them to be less than how perfect I can make that image. You were so strong and yet so tender, a wonderfully complex figure. You had secrets and depth and power, yet you could be a mother to the boy and humor an old man who thinks he can still paint. It isn’t correct for me to make a fantasy of you. It didn’t help that Pan was so captivated by you. And your appearance in the night carrying a wounded child certainly affected me greatly. I listen to myself now, and I know I’m an old fool. And I don’t care! How am I to judge where reality overcomes fantasy? Did you kill millions? Did you save billions? That was a long time ago. All I see now is a woman wearing a yellow dress, standing in my studio, who can sing like an angel.”

Fidelity felt some relief. At least in the short time remaining she would have a valued friend. “You’re the ultimate romantic, Rafael.”

“No, that would be Pan.”

= = =

Jarwekh materialized in the transmat terminal. As the reference field released him, he started at the crowded chamber. He saw Daidaunkh first, standing apart from the others but not far from Denna. Then his gaze swept around and found the Navy captain and Fred the android. The postures and the illegal weapon in Daidaunkh’s hand told Jarwekh the plot of things.

Jarwekh stepped down from the transmat focus and walked toward Daidaunkh. He stopped when Daidaunkh made a slight gesture with his weapon. Daidaunkh didn’t trust him. Daidaunkh trusted no one.

“I heard her sing,” Jarwekh said. “Pan was correct. She is a great singer.”

“She sang for you, did she?” Daidaunkh said, sounding fairly sober. “I never knew you had such a way with women.”

“It was Rafael who found a way to make her sing.” Jarwekh knew it was hopeless to explain and delay with words. “She listened to a recording and remembered how to sing the song. I was quite moved. This is the truth.”

/

Jon Horss stood by Freddy, frustrated by being too far from the crazy Rhyan with the weapon to attempt to disarm him. He was also disappointed that Denna had ignored his hand on her arm to silently urge her to stay away from the Rhyan. Now there was another Rhyan, a big one!

“That’s all?” the crazy one shouted. “You listened to her sing a song and you came back? Why did you go there at all, and without me?”

“I didn’t know we had a plan to go tonight,” the big one responded.

“The Marines are in town,” Denna said, moving even closer to the Rhyan with the weapon. “They’re snooping around, asking questions. The Boss is on the Navy flagship and may not come back down. Would that be why you picked tonight to go visit the admiral at Rafael’s?”

“I discovered in the communications log that he talked to Admiral Etrhnk,” the big Rhyan answered. “I knew he would go aboard the flagship tonight. I did see an opportunity to have my own visit with Admiral Demba and ask her a question.”

Horss listened with sudden interest and with equally sudden concern for Admiral Demba. No matter his true feelings for the mysterious admiral, he was not finished with her. He could not accept her premature departure from his life. He had a weird but strong emotional investment in Admiral Demba, requiring much further investigation into what she could mean to him.

“What was your question?” the dark one demanded. “What was her answer?”

“I didn’t ask the question, after I heard her sing,” the big one replied.

“What kind of fool are you!” the other exclaimed. “I sensed there was something different about you the moment you appeared. I hoped you killed her! But she killed you! Get out of the way! I have my own question to ask!”

“You’ll have to kill me first,” the big one stated, shocking Horss and also, apparently, his fellow Rhyan. “Before you can finish with me, Fred or the Captain will be on you.”

Horss measured the gap between him and the smaller Rhyan again. He could make it, with a little help, at the right instant.

“She is Keshona!” the armed one declared. “I can see the truth in your eyes! You let her lie to you, knowing it was a lie!”

Horss ignored the words now, as he tried to guess the mass of the android and pick a place on it from which to launch himself. He didn’t like the uncertainty of his data. He didn’t like the uncertainty of what the big Rhyan and Denna would do. And also Freddy.

“She answered the question I did not ask,” the big Rhyan said. “She was Keshona. And still I will not let you kill her unless you first kill me.” He took another step forward.

Denna had moved quite close to the armed Rhyan and now she acted, grabbing for the weapon. The dark Rhyan was not surprised by Denna’s action. He threw his free arm around Denna’s neck, ripped the weapon from Denna’s grabbing hands, and put the weapon’s emitter to her temple.

“Denna will be first to die, not you!” the Rhyan snarled. “I’ll give her the final death, if you don’t step aside and send us both to Rafael’s. You know I’ll do it! She wants to die. It will be a kindness. Then I’ll kill as many of the rest of you as I can.”

The big Rhyan took another step forward. The other thumbed a control to a more lethal setting on the weapon. Horss nearly trembled with frustration and with desperation for the safety of Denna.

“Do it, do it, do it,” Denna whispered to Daidaunkh over and over.

= = =

“Is there some place you and Samson can hide?” Fidelity asked.

“Into the darkness,” Rafael replied. “Into the trees. Do you intend to stay and fight?”

“Yes.”

“No! You don’t know how many old Rhyans are on Earth! There is room within the barrier for us to hide for a long time, at least until morning.”

“And in the morning?”

“Perhaps Pan will have returned. What else can we do?”

Fidelity thought Etrhnk would detain Pan indefinitely, now that she sensed how important Pan was in the War. She couldn’t count on him returning soon. Obviously she couldn’t see Captain Horss wanting to help her, except if he thought Samson was endangered. She would take Samson and Rafael into the forest in retreat, but she felt it was not the final solution to the threat of the Rhyans. Ironically, Etrhnk was probably the only one who could save them.

Rafael rushed to gather food and a few supplies in the dark while Fidelity went to wake Samson. She dressed him and picked him up, since he seemed unable to come completely awake. She heard a loud noise in the house and angry muttering from Rafael. He came to them in the dark and limped after them as they exited the house.

They hurried through the humid night and into the trees, Fidelity still carrying Samson. Gator growled and lagged behind. Rafael stopped and took hold of the big dog by his collar. Through the silhouetted branches they could see the first small flames race up the side of the studio.

“The paintings!” Fidelity cried.

“There’s nothing we can do,” Rafael said with little concern.

“Stay here!” She put Samson down and started toward the flames.

“No, don’t go back!” Rafael pleaded. “We can keep running. They won’t find us.”

“You’re too aged to run all night. And you’re limping.”

“I bruised my shin on a table in the dark. I can go on.”

“No one has the right to destroy your life’s work.”

“It’s too late! You can’t stop the fire!”

“Everyone should be held accountable for their actions. Including me. Stay here.”

= = =

Daidaunkh pulled Denna up the ramp to the focus of the transmat, his weapon still jammed tightly against her head. “The machine doesn’t know me,” he addressed Jarwekh, “so it will require your authentication. Move slowly. Don’t think about trying to save Denna.” Daidaunkh waited until Jarwekh enabled the transmat. “Turn the control interface to show me what you do, and enter Raphael’s address.”

“You are making a serious mistake,” Jarwekh said, slowly touching the control surface. “Both of you. I know you are not resisting Daidaunkh’s intentions, Denna.”

“Put in a five-second delay,” Daidaunkh ordered.

“Please, sir,” Jarwekh pleaded. “I failed to stop you twice before. I am failing you yet again. I don’t believe Denna wants to die, not this way. The admiral is not a bad person and does not deserve your bad intentions.”

“Silence!” Daidaunkh shouted. “Detach the interface and hand it to me as soon as you start the delay to execute. Do it! I can’t live like this anymore!”

“I have never thought of it as living,” Jarwekh said. “But I will start living now. I am sorry to see you go. I will never forget you. But I will not grieve for you.” Jarwekh touched-off the delay, peeled the interface quickly from its support, and handed it across to Daidaunkh.

= = =

The emitter barrel of the pistol hurt Denna’s temple and Daidaunkh’s arm around her neck had forced her into a humiliating stooped position. She had first reacted to his use of her as a hostage as the opportunity to die quickly and permanently. Then she remembered the boy. She wanted to see him. She wanted to protect him. When the transmat winked them into the security zone of Rafael’s residence, she shoved Daidaunkh away from her.

“Give me the weapon!” Denna demanded.

“What? Why?”

“I don’t care what you do to the admiral, but I’ll kill you if you harm the boy in the slightest!”

“You can kill me anyway!” he declared, handing her the weapon. “But wait until I rip her heart out!”

“She’s an admiral, Daida! An old admiral! She must know how to defend herself!”

“It doesn’t matter! Even if she kills me, it doesn’t matter! I will have my turn at her!” He pointed to the studio. “I’ll look there. The light’s still on. You take the house.”

A few minutes later Denna rejoined Daidaunkh and they stood in the yard between buildings.

“Not there,” Denna reported.

“I think they just left,” Daidaunkh said. “Jarwekh warned them. They’re hiding in the trees. I no longer have my military augments. It will be difficult to trap them. The admiral should be able to see and hear better than I.”

“I don’t like this place!” Denna complained. “Too many memories!” She made an adjustment on the pistol. She pointed it at the house. In a few seconds the wood siding started to char and smoke, then a hole punched through the wall and something inside ignited, lighting up a window.

“What are you doing?” Daidaunkh protested, reaching to take the weapon back from Denna.

“Burning my past!” She dodged his grasp and pointed the pistol at the studio. It took only seconds for fire to erupt inside. The flames built into an inferno on either side of them.

Distracted by the ravenous fire, they didn’t see the figure in a yellow dress until she arrived very near them.

“I remember that dress!” Denna shouted. “That’s my dress! You can’t wear my dress!”

Daidaunkh heard her words above the roar of the fire. He stopped her when she aimed the weapon at the admiral. He bent close and spoke into Denna’s ear. “Don’t shoot her! Even if she kills me! Leave her for another Rhyan to kill.”

Denna stood aside but kept her weapon aimed at the admiral.

Daidaunkh approached the admiral, coming close enough that she could hear him when he raised his voice. “Are you the one who was called Keshona?”

“Part of me was,” Fidelity answered. “What is your name?”

“Daidaunkh!”

/

The syllables of this Rhyan’s name seemed to flow into the subvocal channel of her data augment, where her eyes pointed to the tools that refined the spelling and initiated the search. Biographical data was plucked from a vast cache of Rhyan material and appeared as though printed on a screen inside her eyes. “Daidaunkh,” she quoted. “House of Illiiandh, son of Daisaukh and Ciriaandh. You are a long time into your family years,” she commented, reading more. “Where are your wife and children? I know your Intended died in the Massacre, but there are always others who would help you continue your house.”

She spoke the Rhyan royal language flawlessly, startling Daidaunkh. “How do you know of me? Is it your hobby to know the survivors of The Massacre? Why would you possess such knowledge so close to your tongue? Why do you soil our language with your tongue?”

“I don’t know, Daidaunkh. It’s a surprise to me as well. Why do you burn the life and great works of Rafael de LaGuardia? It isn’t right.”

“She hates this place where her son was born and died.” Daidaunkh indicated his female companion. “Denna burns it. I don’t think it will make her any happier.”

“What will make you happier?” Fidelity watched the Rhyan but also studied the blonde woman who claimed ownership of the yellow dress. Denna. That name was in the title of Rafael’s most important portraits. His wife… a different skin color… but the eyes… yes, the eyes.

“You murdered my family!” the Rhyan shouted at her. “My Intended! The family of my Intended! And so many other Rhyan! You ask a needless question!”

“Nothing you do will make you happier tonight,” she said. “All that remains of Keshona is what will continue your suffering. You’ve found her body, but I beg you to wait for another time to have your revenge.”

“Is that all you have to say?”

“Yes.”

The Rhyan moved quickly and the first blow grazed Fidelity. She observed the attack by Daidaunkh as though standing apart from the two persons engaged in combat and watching at a slow rate of time. Again and again her avatar allowed her larger opponent near contact but no effective strikes.

“I told you!” Denna shouted. “She’s just playing with you!”

Fidelity sensed a change in the Rhyan, a turn toward desperation, an elevation to frenzy. Daidaunkh rushed her, giving up his defenses, gambling that he could absorb some punishment in order to inflict a greater damage to Fidelity. She moved, just enough, not taking advantage of his tactic but simply avoiding him – much as she did with Captain Horss – waiting for him to tire. She jumped, dodged, stepped, and leaned, never leaving a circle larger than five meters. That she could react so quickly, that she could anticipate so accurately, still amazed her. That she could have the time and perspective to think about such things in the heat of combat further impressed her. Who was she? What was she?

Finally understanding she wouldn’t move against him, Daidaunkh paused to catch his breath.

“The boy, Daida!” Denna shouted over the firestorm. “The boy!” The roar of combustion could not wash away the pain in her words. She waved the weapon and appeared greatly agitated, even weeping.

Fidelity turned to see Samson hopping on his one leg toward her, trying to hold onto a dog bigger than he was. Gator broke loose, rushed by her, barking a warning or a challenge. Denna shot the dog and he collapsed, plowing into the ground at her feet. Fidelity felt the fringe of the weapon’s beam and knew Gator had received a paralyzing shock to his nervous system. He had died instantly.

Denna looked down on the dog, almost dropping the weapon as she staggered back a few steps. Daidaunkh chose the moment of distraction to charge Fidelity. Without even looking at him, she caught his wrist and made him turn in a direction he could only resist. She felt one of his forearm bones snap. As he spun into the ground she caught his lower leg under her foot and broke it.

Samson tried to hop past Fidelity to Gator but she put a hand out to stop him. Samson looked with grave concern at the still body of Gator. Daidaunkh struggled briefly on the ground until the extent of his injuries forced him into a painful stillness.

Denna held the weapon on Fidelity, her eyes – her famous tragic eyes, blue not brown – darting to Gator, to Daidaunkh, to Samson, and back to Fidelity, clearly afraid to look away from her for too long.

“Are you badly hurt?” Denna called to Daidaunkh.

He turned his face away from her.

“Gator!” Samson called out to the dog. “Gator! Get up, Gator! Come here!”

The firelight sparkled on Denna’s garment and inflamed her blonde hair. When she turned in just the right direction her eyes glistened like wet opals. Demons of emotion chased each other across her perfect features. She held her weapon unsteadily, not pointing it directly at Fidelity, perhaps reluctant to fire with Daidaunkh and Samson so close to her. Fidelity was almost certain the woman would never shoot. She felt empathy for Denna and a great disappointment in herself for having forced this confrontation.

“Tell me what to do, Daida!” Denna cried.

Daidaunkh only looked up at Fidelity, and though his dark eyes were full of hate for her, he said nothing and would not turn to Denna.

“I can’t wait any longer!” Denna shouted in agony.

Fidelity saw Rafael behind Denna and let surprise change her expression. Denna reacted to her and tried to see who was behind her. Fidelity rushed forward, hoping to prevent injury to both Denna and Rafael. Rafael swung a piece of charred lumber, stumbling as he limped hurriedly toward Denna. Denna tried to turn back to Fidelity despite the threat from Rafael.

“No!” Fidelity cried.

Rafael seemed desperate to prevent Denna from shooting Fidelity. As Denna turned back to Fidelity she tried to blindly duck the coming blow from Rafael. Rafael’s legs propelled him so unsteadily he couldn’t aim the arc of his club. Just by chance it struck Denna solidly. The weapon fell from her hand. She collapsed in Fidelity’s arms.

Denna convulsed as Fidelity lowered her carefully to the ground. She knelt beside Denna as her convulsions stopped and she became still. Her opal eyes sparkled in the firelight, released the tragedy of her life, and didn’t close. Rafael dropped to his knees beside her and touched her, stroked her bare arm. Ash fell on them, and Denna’s pale arm was streaked with gray.

“What have I done?” Rafael cried. “Denna? Denna! Forgive me!”

“Do you have a head-bag?” Fidelity asked, shivering at the prospect of using such a device.

“She wouldn’t want that,” Rafael replied mournfully. “That has already happened to her once before. I killed her! I killed my son and now I’ve killed my wife!”

The Golden Visitor

 

Navy Commander Admiral Etrhnk was actually startled, and immediately knew the visitor was a harbinger of his death.

The three Marines stood apart in proper tactical formation, treating the shorter being as dangerous, their weapons pointing toward it but not precisely at it. There was no doubt the visitor was female. She stood still, holding up her Diplomatic-Level Navy Pass, while watching Etrhnk through a strangely-veiled hat as he approached the Security detail.

“Stand down!” Etrhnk ordered immediately after realizing who the visitor was. “Return to your duty stations.”

“But, sir,” the ranking Marine said, lowering his weapon, “we don’t know how she got aboard!”

“I have responsibility for the visitor,” Etrhnk said with menacing finality. “Speak to no one of her. Thank you for bringing her to my direct attention. I have your names. I will enforce this as a full security mandate. Carry on.”

The Marines secured their arms, came to attention, saluted Etrhnk, and hastily departed.

The shrouded being watched the Marines move out of sight. She turned around and gazed in several directions, none of which should have held much of interest to her. Finally she let her barely visible eyes rest on Etrhnk. “You won’t hurt them,” she said. It was an order, not a request.

Etrhnk walked slowly around the visitor, trying to judge whether the Marines had seen too much, enough for them to realize the visitor was alien. He did not doubt she was not a member of any of the human races, but his perception was aided by knowledge the Marines did not have. She was artfully concealed in a high-fashion Essiin clothing ensemble. She was playing at being Essiin, daring to let a glimpse of golden skin pass for an extreme body-fashioning. That the Essiin could let their sense of aesthetics overbear their logical pursuits always remained a mystery to Etrhnk. The Marines must at least know she was female. He was embarrassed to receive a lone female in public, not wanting the storm of speculation it would arouse concerning his personal life. Privacy was vital in keeping his power and position. Embarrassment, of course, did not reach beyond the secrecy of his thoughts, and despite the calamity this Golden One would bring, he admired her courage. “Come,” he dared order her.

Etrhnk walked swiftly toward his offices and residence on the flagship. The alien followed, emitting a heavy exhalation which clearly expressed dissatisfaction. He was relieved when he finally escorted her into the absolute privacy of his suite on the Eclipse. He was relieved to let his stunted emotions rest from what little they were stimulated.

“That was too quick!” the Golden One complained in a voice whose complex quality seemed to cause him to resonate like a tuning fork. “I wanted to have a look around! Did you think I was too exposed? You know they would never believe I was a real alien. Real aliens are supposed to be small and green, anyway. My, you are a large one, aren’t you? My name is Constant.”

She made to offer her hand in greeting, exposing it from a loose sleeve, but Etrhnk dared not take it. Her hand had no thumb, only two pairs of opposed fingers.

Her name is Constant, he thought, trying to remember the odd name for his own sake.

“A pleasure,” he lied, or thought he lied. He watched as she raised her veil and removed the hat – a hat with feathers. There were feathers under the hat, feathers on her head, and some golden covering on her face. And all of her feathers moved! Although he controlled his expression – with extreme effort – to show complete lack of concern, he felt his skin prickle with goose flesh and his nerves tingle with shock at seeing a real alien. It was for him a momentous encounter, and both magical and probably lethal.

“You’ve seen one of us before?” the female inquired, studying his face and showing a quite-human frown, along with a velvety ripple of pattern in the fur-like feathers of her face.

He answered slowly, wondering between words if there was some honorific or title he should add before her name. “No… Constant, but I’ve heard inadequate descriptions.”

“You’re the cool one.” She looked him up and down, perhaps like the owner of a prize horse.

Etrhnk knew the alien’s “cool one” corruption of Standard came from old English. This was not unexpected. That the alien spoke Standard and not Twenglish was unexpected. If his final days were at hand, at least he would satisfy his curiosity about the Golden Ones. “If you find my manner objectionable,” Etrhnk said, “I must insist that I cannot easily change.”

The Alien named Constant removed a layer of clothing, perhaps trying to be provocative – and succeeding – until she was only covered by a loose undergarment. Etrhnk could imagine, seeing the feathery golden covering of her exposed limbs, that clothing was uncomfortable for her. She piled the body garments and the strange veiled hat on the black table, gave the black/white room a quick survey, and turned her great dark blue eyes back to Etrhnk.

“Your manner is legendary,” she said, “but I would deem it a challenge. If we have time. Find anything interesting happening on Earth?”

Etrhnk was now even more certain of his impending doom. “Yes. Two officers of mine encountered a child and a monster, and there is also a rumor of a ghost.”

“That is certainly interesting.”

“Should I exercise less curiosity?” he asked.

“Tell me what you know,” she ordered.

Etrhnk told the alien female absolutely every piece of information he had gathered, and while he spoke she revolved around him, studying him. He didn’t try to follow her with his gaze but the sight of her was fascinating. She was more human than he thought was normal for her species. Neither was she as threatening as legend called for but Etrhnk knew her power was supreme. He wondered at what she seemed to find so interesting about him. He also wondered that no Golden One had made personal contact with him until now. He knew his predecessor was often visited by one or more of these aliens, always with many orders and instructions. When he finished talking she had no questions about what he recounted. She did have questions about him.

“So young,” the Golden One remarked. “How old are you in Earth years, Navy Commander Etrhnk?”

“I don’t know exactly, but I believe I may be forty-eight.”

“Old for a barbarian.”

“I must not have the death gene. It is not clear how far my lineage entwines with theirs but I seem to have a majority of Essiin heritage.”

“You are the best fake Essiin I’ve ever seen.” She reached out to touch the dark skin of his cheek but drew back, suddenly indecisive. She turned away, recovered composure. “Rare, yet totally convincing. Your designers had a flare for the dramatic. You almost flaunt the crazy Essiin culture back at them. You can come out of the act around me, if you wish.”

“It seems impossible now.” Etrhnk had to remind himself that it was true he was not Essiin. Then he had to ignore the fact.

The wondrous alien creature apparently discounted most of Etrhnk’s replies, as if she knew more about him than he knew about himself. Perhaps she did, and the idea both intrigued him and threatened him.

“We’ll work on it!” Constant declared humorously. “It seems such a shame. So much wasted.” She turned back to him. “Are you still in good fighting trim? You look like you are.”

“It is a necessary condition of the occupation,” he replied. The Golden One knew this. She must know the answer to every question she would put to him. It would be interesting to see if he could learn her purpose for such unnecessary talk. It occurred to him there was no risk to asking questions of her, since he had so little life remaining. “How old are you?”

“Ah! A question! Excellent! Answer: I don’t know. However, I am certain I’m older than hell. The approximate number is efficiently expressed using scientific notation. In base-ten the value would be two and the exponent would be six.”

Etrhnk allowed himself to blink at the reply. The legends said the Golden Ones were immortal. The legends were correct. “You appear quite young,” he remarked.

“Thank you! I’m sure I look hardly a day over a millennium. Are you having any fun? What do I call you? Etrhnk? Big E? I’m only trying to be friendly, not disrespectful. I know what you’ve been through to make it here and stay here. You are a legend among barbarians. You’re almost too good to be true. I’ve known many of your predecessors and there is no comparison.”

“Thank you.” Her remark did not gratify him. There was no pleasure in what he had accomplished. He saw his life as a natural progression based on his abilities. He saw his job as useful to civilization. Without his effort and the efforts of his predecessors, the barbarians would have ruined everything. It was regrettable that the process was brutal, that it contradicted what little he appreciated of Essiin aesthetics. He wondered at her “trying to be friendly.” Why would she try to be friendly with a human she was soon to terminate? “Why have you come to see me?” he asked.

“Oh, I know what you suspect but it isn’t why I’m here.” She sat on the black table and dangled her golden legs, swinging her feet. He stared at her, because she probably wanted him to stare at her. What did such an ancient creature do to keep from dying of boredom? She cocked her feathered face to one side, targeting him with her huge violet eyes. “I thought I knew why I came to meet you. Maybe I did know. Maybe now I don’t! Don’t expect so much of me, simply because I’m old. Would you like to touch me?”

He hesitated to reply. He knew what answer was expected of him: “Yes.”

She laughed. “I don’t kiss on the first date. Don’t worry. There’s nothing you can or can’t do that I’ll hold against you. But first, let me see the painting.”

Digging Graves

 

“There’s someone lying on the ground,” Jarwekh said, leaning forward in the seat behind Sugai Mai.

“Oh, no!” Mai exclaimed, trying to see what Jarwekh had observed.

Denna, Horss said to himself, having waited several moments for the others to make the discovery he had already made. They three observed from a height that disclosed the extent of destruction surrounding Denna: all darkness of ash and smoke, with her as the single bright spot, as though she had been protected from the ash. He was sure Denna was dead.

It was just before sunrise. Fred and Jarwekh had searched for a replacement human interface for the transmat and then had resorted to using the underlying alien interface – to no avail. Sugai Mai had eventually arrived in the Mnro Clinic’s aircar ambulance, still leaving them with the problem of discovering where to fly the aircar to find the residence of Raphael. Even Fred did not know the geography of this place on Earth. Fred remained at Pan’s residence, allowing for the probable need of the aircar to transport more passengers back to the city.

Horss was tempted to try a shiplink call to the Eclipse but couldn’t overcome his aversion to asking for help from there. It was as though the ship and that part of his life had changed meaning for him, a meaning that threatened him. He worried about Samson but knew that if Demba couldn’t protect him, there wasn’t any hope that he could.

“I’ll try a slow descent and see if we encounter resistance from the protective field,” Horss said, taking the aircar out of its orbit of the property and directing it toward the body that lay between the remains of two burned wooden buildings.

Horss had been tense, piloting the car in the open sky, following the faint remnants of old highways in the relentless overgrowth of tropical vegetation. More than once he regretted having asked to pilot the vehicle, even though it mostly maneuvered and navigated itself. It was not a matter of ego that he wanted to sit in the pilot’s seat; it was a matter of safety, based on his having augmented vision and reflexes. Of course his ego did feel bruised by this little fear of planetary openness. Now the phobia was washed from his mind by the shock of Denna’s probably-violent death. Smoke from the smoldering structures rose above them on either side, tinted orange by the just-rising sun.

The aircar met no repulsion by any defensive force. Horss picked the landing spot and let the ambulance lower itself to the ground. Mai popped open her door first and rushed to Denna. She touched Denna’s neck with her fingertips, frowned, and moved them to her chest, under the shiny dress. She withdrew her hand. Horss didn’t need to ask about Denna’s condition.

“She’s beyond resurrection?” Jarwekh asked, pain in his low voice.

“Her body can be restored but not her mind, and I promised her I wouldn’t try,” Mai responded sadly.

“How did she die?” Horss asked. He was hardly able to do more than brush his gaze past the corpse. Denna had seemed so distant from this fate in the few moments he’d known her, despite the tragic nature of her life.

Mai used a small instrument to scan the body. “Her neck is broken from a blow to the back of it. That is the underlying cause. The admiral?”

“You mean, did the admiral kill her?” Horss asked. “I can’t imagine why she would. Where are they?” He looked around, feeling the wrongness of the situation. “That was probably the murder weapon,” he said, pointing to the piece of lumber on the ground near the body. “Demba wouldn’t have needed to use such a weapon. Where is Demba and Samson? They should be here.”

“And where is Rafael?” Sugai Mai asked, gazing about.

“Perhaps the forest,” Jarwekh said, kneeling by Denna. The big Rhyan had no tears for Denna but Horss heard the sound of grief in Jarwekh’s roughened three words.

“No, they won’t be there,” Horss said, feeling that something further was wrong about their absence. “We won’t find them.”

Mai stood up and scanned the area with another instrument. “Over there,” she said, pointing. She led Horss and Jarwekh toward a small fenced area at the edge of the clearing.

“The grave of Rafael’s son,” Jarwekh said.

They gathered at a grassy plot of land surrounded by a picket fence and overhung by an old oak. There was a bronze plaque affixed to a slab of granite to mark one grave. The name Daniel was cast in the bronze with the words: “Beloved son of Denna and Rafael.” There were smaller graves with smaller markers nearby, perhaps containing the remains of pets. They saw the body of a large dog lying next to the beginning of a hole that was its intended grave.

“Gator,” Mai said, “Rafael’s dog. They were trying to bury him but were interrupted.”

“Where is Daidaunkh?” Jarwekh asked. “I think he would also be dead.”

“Are many other transmats in orbit that operate to the surface of Earth?” Horss asked.

Jarwekh shook his head and replied: “Too many. But the EPA tries to be vigilant.”

Horss stared up at the old oak and saw it wasn’t a healthy tree, its leaves sparse, its branches over-populated with Spanish moss. The next thunderstorm or hurricane would likely bring some of its limbs down upon the graves.

Was it over? Had Etrhnk taken Demba and Samson? Why was he waiting to take his former captain back to the Eclipse? Horss was sure Etrhnk knew exactly where he was. Horss didn’t want to return to the Eclipse, and it was now obvious he would not be allowed to return to his former post.

/

Mai picked up a shovel and started to dig the grave deeper for Gator. He was a good dog, and very friendly. She remembered him when Rafael brought him to her as a puppy. “He has big feet,” she had told Rafael. “He’ll be a large dog. He’ll knock you down. Let me do something for your bones and your strength.” Rafael had laughed his refusal. It was just an animal, yet its death added more to the tragedy of Denna’s death than Mai would have expected. It was innocent of human affairs, never understanding the possible consequences of its instinctive loyalty. And she knew the dog as well as she knew Denna. The many misadventures of Gator had caused her to add veterinary medicine to her duties.

Jarwekh took the shovel from Mai and dug the grave more quickly. When they laid Gator to rest and covered him over, Jarwekh started on the grave for Denna, next to Daniel’s.

“I must take her back for legal reasons,” Mai said to Jarwekh. “Pan will want to see the body also.”

“I know,” Jarwekh said. “I just need to dig. Tell me when you’re ready to leave.”

Mai walked slowly back along the trail in the ash to where Denna’s body lay. She paused to gaze at that uncommon sight – a dead person beyond her science to revive – then went to the aircar and began looking in its compartments. Horss knelt by Denna’s body. Mai could see he was upset. He made angry swipes with his hand to keep the flies away from Denna. When Mai returned he helped her wrap the body in the sheet of plastic she found in the aircar. Horss carried the body to the vehicle and put it inside.

“Did anyone die in the fire?” Horss asked.

“I don’t think so. It will take time to survey the residue. But all of Rafael’s original paintings and many of his sculptures must have been destroyed. Will you call your ship now?”

“No.”

Mai could infer several things, hearing Horss’s minimal response. He was angry. He was worried. If he would not call the Navy flagship and request an investigation or an explanation, that was tantamount to ending his Navy career. His reaction pleased her for some reason.

“Pan hasn’t returned,” Mai remarked. She was thinking about the probable connection to the disappearance of Samson and the others. They might all be on the Navy Commander’s ship.

“She was a nicer person than she thought she was,” Horss said thoughtfully.

It took Mai a moment to realize Horss was speaking of Denna. It took that same moment for her to realize the loss of Denna from her own life mattered much more than she thought it would.

/

The Mnro Clinic director turned away from Horss. He could see she was finally reacting to the situation. He listened to Jarwekh digging under the oak while he waited for Mai to recover her composure.

“There are so few people on earth,” Mai eventually said. “Most of them in one place. Because of my profession, I meet almost everyone sooner or later. A few, like Denna, I’ve known for years. I always try to avoid becoming too involved with people like Denna. All people, actually. I think I need to retain as much objectivity – emotional distance – as possible to be an effective physician. I realize now that I’ve never been objective about Denna. She was someone you couldn’t ignore. Good or bad, she was a force. She was Rafael’s wife. I wish I’d known her then. The person I knew was so self-absorbed, I just wanted to strangle her! She was always hurting herself. I treated her wounds so many times and always knew it was a cry for help. Yet she wouldn’t let anyone help her. I think she needed Rafael but he was afraid to confront her. Why is our medical science still so reluctant to treat mental injuries?”

“She blamed him for their son’s death,” Horss said. He realized now who Denna was. The wife of an important artist. The subject of famous portraits. And the forever-grieving mother of a dead son.

“She blamed herself, or else she wouldn’t have suffered so,” Mai said and turned around to face Horss. She frowned. “How can the Navy justify detaining Pan?”

“Can you imagine,” Horss asked, “anyone denying the Navy Commander anything he wants?”

“Why would he want Pan?”

“Let me tell you what happened when Pan met Demba.” Horss told Mai everything he’d heard from Pan prior to his departure.

“Pan thought he was becoming someone else,” Mai then said. “There are reasons why people try to stay on Earth. I always knew Pan was someone else. Doctor Mnro – as legend has it – can parse a person’s DNA by sight and smell. I have some of that talent myself. When I first came to Earth and met Pan as a patient, I suspected he wasn’t exactly what his genetic record said he was. But how could I question the integrity of the Clinic’s database?”

“I don’t think that was what he meant,” Horss said. “It was memories of being someone he didn’t know he’d been. My guess is that Pan has proved to be a very interesting individual. He has a connection to Demba, and Etrhnk wants time to investigate him.”

“Nevertheless,” Mai said, “I’m fairly certain Pan didn’t realize he was not mainly Essiin. He looks Earthian but he’s mainly Rhyan.”

“You broke some Clinic rules?” Horss hoped Miss Perfect wasn’t so perfect.

“I had to know. I did the analysis, ignoring the Clinic’s records. I had to assume Pan was special in some way to the Mnro Clinic. Almost every time I have him in the clinic for an injury or routine examination, the next day I’ll get a call from Doctor Mnro herself, wanting to know how he is. And if he doesn’t get seen by the Clinic for more than a year, I’ll also get a call from her. Pan thinks Doctor Mnro simply loves the Mother Earth Opera. It must be more than that. I think I’m the only Clinic director who talks so regularly with Doctor Mnro. Pan must be important to her. If she knew Etrhnk was holding him, she’d do something about it.”

“You should call her,” Horss urged.

“If he isn’t home by tonight I will.”

An Algebra of Ethics

 

“One of the most beautiful sights in the universe, not only because of pattern and color, but because of its history and its mystery. Instantly recognized by everyone. The most hospitable planet known, even in its damaged state. Yet, it’s a dangerous place, even lethal.”

Navy Commander Etrhnk turned to face his guest and motioned for the armed Marine escort to leave them in private. He examined the Opera Master visually and with other sensors to see there was no obvious physical injury to him. He was uncomfortable in detaining Pan and restricted in how he could use forced interrogation. This long into his term as Navy Commander, he was losing trust in his barbarian staff.

“I’m performing a small experiment,” Etrhnk added.

/

Pan waited as the Marines departed. He waited for Etrhnk to say more, his troubled mind unaware how talkative Etrhnk seemed. Behind Etrhnk, Earth – the subject of his brief discourse – was a thin crescent, its night side glowing palely in reflected moonlight.

Pan said nothing. He didn’t resent his imprisonment. He didn’t wonder at Etrhnk’s purposes. He hardly had room in his turbulent thoughts to consider anything other than the visions that erupted from some hidden volcano of burning-real imagery.

“In your brief absence from Earth much has happened down there,” Etrhnk continued, turning away from Pan, leaving him at his back. “The artist’s residence had a transmat visitor just after nightfall, then two more soon after. A fire started when the second visitors arrived. Two structures were destroyed. I had already sent down a probe. It observed the violent deaths of a woman and a dog.”

Pan’s mental turmoil subsided at Etrhnk’s mention of deaths. He found his voice. “A dog? Gator? A woman died?”

“Perhaps you would care to see.”

The view of crescent Earth ceased, replaced by a terrestrial scene illuminated by firelight. The perspective rushed toward distant human figures standing between burning buildings. The flight of the probe halted, the picture stabilized, and the field of view adjusted to include the appearance of another person from around the side of one blazing structure.

“Rafael,” Pan said, seeing his old friend, apparently injured, hobble into the scene carrying a stick of wood.

The scene froze as all participants became visible: Rafael stumbling toward Denna who had her back to him; Demba starting to rush toward Denna; Gator collapsed on the ground; Samson bouncing on one leg, his eyes wide with fright; Daidaunkh sprawled on the ground and injured, staring in agony at Demba; the flames paused in their feast of home and art; the night forest illuminated by the inferno into a backdrop for violence.

“This is the woman who will die.” Etrhnk pointed to Denna in her sparkling dress. “Do you know her?”

“Yes.” Denna is going to die? She is already dead, then? But, in a sense, Denna has been dead for many years.

“If you don’t wish to see what happens, we can stop here.”

“Stop.” Remember Denna as a child. Remember her as Rafael’s wife. Remember her as a good mother. Remember her always.

“I overheard a subsequent conversation,” Etrhnk said, “in which the artist said his wife wouldn’t want to be restored to life.”

“You didn’t interfere,” Pan struggled to respond, mourning Denna.

“You would have?”

“She was my adopted daughter!”

“Then I have erred.”

“You may add yourself to a long list of others who failed to help Denna.” Pan felt the ache of grief hurt his throat. The final death of Denna ended an era. He would mourn her with less restraint when he had the necessary privacy, but it would be difficult to wait.

Etrhnk allowed some time to pass before he spoke again, as if he was actually sensitive to Pan’s emotional state. “I analyzed the action and I believe the death was accidental. Admiral Demba seemed poised to disarm the woman. The artist was apparently trying to distract the woman by striking her on the back. Unfortunately, the artist stumbled and the woman moved the wrong way. The blow broke her neck. Your daughter was the wife of Rafael de LaGuardia. Some of the most famous paintings in Earthian culture bear her likeness. But she was of dark African ancestry and not as pale as we see her here.”

“Denna suffered a great personal tragedy.” The effort to force words around the mounting grief agonized Pan’s throat. “She was never dark-skinned again, never the woman in Rafael’s finest paintings, as if that was some reminder or some other cause for the pain and guilt she felt.”

“You sent Admiral Demba to the artist because she is African, as was his wife.”

“Do the Essiin in any way appreciate the emotional content of life?” Pan asked. “I once thought I knew that was true.”

“Are we not all the same humans in the deepest analysis?” Etrhnk asked. “Perhaps we who starve ourselves of it appreciate emotion more than do Earthians and Rhyans. When dealing with such humans, it’s a vital type of data to analyze, yet I do it poorly.”

“Why is this vital?” Pan should not have asked. He only wanted the meeting with Etrhnk to end now.

“Things are happening,” Etrhnk stated. “I understand little of it. I need to understand all of it. I think it goes deeper yet than our mysterious admiral.”

“You suspect the boy is more important than Demba?” Pan wondered. “Have you learned anything about Samson?”

“I’ve not even learned anything more about you, sir. Except that your resistance to interrogation seems a little beyond the state of the art.”

“The gaps in my consciousness have been busy times for your staff?”

“You don’t remember?”

“Would I want to?”

“I think not. I don’t do this out of idle curiosity or perversion. For a person in my position, ignorance can be fatal.”

“I no longer know how it is with Essiin,” Pan said, “but other humans want more and more from life, so something is always missing, even though they may not know what it is. We place a high value on continued existence, as though the wanting of things and a long life in which to want them are a single logical force. But we should know it’s wrong to harm others simply as a matter of insurance toward those goals.”

“To place my actions in ethical perspective,” Etrhnk said, “you have to know many things I can’t tell you. I didn’t mean to imply that my own life is more sacred than any others. It isn’t. To even begin an ethical evaluation of our circumstances we have to find common ground at the root of our beliefs about life and existence.”

“It isn’t that complicated for me, Admiral! Treat others as you would want to be treated!”

“It is a simple rule with which I largely agree, but it assumes too much about one’s own desires. A simpler rule is to be kind to others. Too few of us can live by rules of any sort. We are imperfect and often lazy. Life is always more complicated than we can manage. Compromise is inevitable.”

“I used to believe in an algebra of ethics,” Pan said, almost wearily, “even though it seemed too much like politics. I killed my mother because I thought ethics was more complicated than the Golden Rule. The trouble with complex ethics is that you can’t predict whether ethically questionable actions will produce an ethical outcome. Nor can you entirely justify a good result that came from a bad action. I apologize for the lecture but I feel more than qualified to give and receive such.”

Admiral Etrhnk didn’t respond for several moments. Finally he spoke. “I presume you didn’t mean you intentionally killed your mother.”

“It feels the same.”

“You are a good person,” Etrhnk said. “I believe there are very many good people in the universe. I also believe there are many more evil people, people too selfish to be ethical. Perhaps most of us are simply mongrels of ethical breeding, sometimes doing good or more often doing bad. I’ll do what logic dictates I must, hoping that good ultimately results from logic.”

When the Marines removed him from Etrhnk’s presence, Pan realized he didn’t inquire of Etrhnk’s “experiment.” He knew it must include Demba as its main subject.

= = =

Etrhnk remained in front of the frozen image of impending tragedy. Only two of the figures were of interest to him. He thought he could identify the boy, if he dared ask the golden alien named Constant. Fidelity Demba was a mystery beyond his ability to tolerate. Before she caused his death, he had to know who she really was. Unfortunately, Pan was his best possible source for that knowledge, and to wrest it from his mind would kill him. Should a doomed man be concerned with ethics?

Dreams of Funerals

 

She couldn’t turn to face him – some unknown force prevented it – but she could feel him. She held his arm and felt the tremors of emotion within him, the grief finally surfacing after so many months of denying the loss of his wife and daughter. He leaned against her and she put an arm around his waist, telling herself it was purely a sympathetic action, having nothing to do with her deeper feelings for him. She sensed the presence of the others but their names and faces were prevented from her knowing of them. Even so, she knew she had known them all for decades. Their lives had defined each other, and they shared the grief of the man, the so-important man she now touched and held. Finally, this man – her man now? – took a deep breath and let it slowly out. He cleared his throat. He spoke.

“At great risk, Zakiya brought us her recording of the death of the Titanic. I’m terrified to imagine how close she may have been to sharing the fate of Fidelity and Susan. My wife and daughter sailed on a ship much like an ancient, unescorted, Spanish treasure galleon. This was a gift to these pirates. We’re at war with a distant enemy whose faces we’ve yet to see, and with a closer enemy whose faces are all too familiar.”

The sound of his voice! She had forgot the sound of his voice, and now she wept at rediscovering it. Another of her friends spoke and she thrilled at the familiarity of that voice; and so it went with each of their group, until she fairly burst with the joy of near-remembrance. Then she was ashamed to feel joy at such a sad moment in their history.

She found herself standing before them, eulogizing the lost, saying names she couldn’t hear, and looking at dear faces obscured by a veil of tears.

She spoke to them, saying: “Some of us will seek out the enemy, find his lair, and discover his weaknesses. The rest of us will stay and do what we can to prepare for the day when we are together again and we can do something about this menace to civilization.”

The brilliant and tantalizing dream evaporated, sucked back into some secret container.

She had heard her name again – Fidelity – and the name Susan. She also heard an unfamiliar name – Zakiya – and her perspective in the internal narrative seemed to assign it to herself. That name was already fading. It was gone. There was also a man, an obscured man, and the tactile impressions of him were monumentally important to her mental avatar. She ached to plunge back into that deep well of emotional images and sensations and words, but the wind was blowing the fragments away, along with the tears on her cheeks.

The white banners fluttered in the wind at the edge of the island. The sunlight on white clothing, white trimmings, and white banners washed out the details of faces in the eye-burning glare. She could feel him next to her, touching her, bowing his head with her. The funeral urn passed by them: another wife lost to the enemy. She looked up at a passing figure and saw the face of a young Japanese woman and recognized her in an instant of illogical joy. She remembered the daughter who had just lost her mother. She remembered Nori.

They began walking, taking their places in the funeral procession behind father and daughter. The man next to her took her hand and spoke to her quietly. It was his voice, the man who meant so much to her! His presence both exalted her and terrified her. He shouldn’t have come to this funeral! They sought to kill him! She turned to squint at his face, hoping to remember his features. She saw his face. She didn’t know him! He was in disguise.

She let go of his hand. She knew they could tie him to her and could be watching her for that reason. She fell back a step but he also fell back and took her hand again. He squeezed it and pulled it against his stomach where he held it with both of his hands. She started to say his name, started to speak a warning to him, started to break the silence of the procession up to the temple, and realized she couldn’t say his name because she couldn’t remember it, WHICH WAS ABSURD! She choked back frustration. More than anything in her entire life, she wanted to remember him. She loved him: he had to know that, she had to tell him. She wept.

The daughter turned to look at her as they mounted the steps to the temple. The daughter placed a hand on her arm and drew her… into the future… where she didn’t want to go…

Now Fidelity knew she had lost someone of ultimate importance to her. A man. She was devastated by the loss in these few seconds, before losing even the reason for her devastation. Only her heart remembered the pain, until that, too, eased from existence with the next breath of fresh salt air.

Nori placed a hand on her forearm and waited for her to look at her. That other person she never wanted to see – that thief – stood next to her, looking sad and beautiful and affectionate. She hugged Nori and she hugged the thief and she loved them both dearly, but why should she love the thief?

“I’m sorry I’m late,” she told Nori and the thief.

It took little time to remember. It took too long to survive remembering. And she didn’t survive. She died. She was reborn a stranger. She wasn’t supposed to be here now. She was in limbo. But she remembered. It was easy to remember Nori. It was difficult to remember this other woman, difficult as in painful. She was a thief. She stole her memories. She stole her daughter. She made her remember people she should not want to remember, because she loved them too much, and because they were dead or dying. The thief would soon push her into a future where there was no one left to give meaning to life. This was an interlude of pain, with only slight joy at remembering these two friends.

Nori took her hand and led her through the doorway and into the world of mountains. She and the thief took places on either side of Nori behind the mule-drawn hearse. They walked behind the hearse along a narrow dirt road where quartz crystals sparkled in the sunlight. People stood along the side of the road with bowed heads, many of them weeping. They passed through a village where more people waited beside the way, all activity stopped for the passing of the funeral procession. They walked to another village with more people waiting for them. They ascended through sloping mountain meadows and green forests, across bridges over rushing streams. Birds sang in the air. Butterflies visited wildflowers beside the winding road. A breeze whispered up the slopes. More villages thronged with waiting crowds came and went. They ascended into the clouds and through a forest of giant trees dripping with moisture. Finally they walked beyond the clouds and into sunshine. Above them a snow-capped peak loomed. Far away in the purple haze of the zenith another mountaintop dangled through a layer of dark clouds on the other side of the sealed world. She looked back along the last long leg of their journey and saw thousands of people following, the line stretching back into the clouds below. They took a branch of the road which climbed steeply for a short distance into flowers.

A wooden cottage with a high-pitched roof stood in a garden of flowers and ornamental shrubs. The cottage and garden nestled within a bowl on the side of the mountain. The river of people which flowed up the mountain filed into the bowl. Mourners took places on the slopes overlooking the cottage and garden. Hundreds, then thousands, silently filled every available position. Pallbearers brought the coffin out of the hearse and carried it to the grave site: a small mound in front of the cottage. She saw him for the first time through the transparent sides of the coffin, and the fact of his death struck her like a dagger to the heart. A surge of joy at remembering him mixed bitterly with the grief of her loss. Their friend had died. He would never see them again. They would never see him. And the others… gone… as good as dead. They would never know if they were dead or alive. It crushed her spirit, dropped her to her knees.

Nori and the thief knelt beside her and held her. Bagpipes in the distance sang farewell with their haunting melancholy wail. “We’re all alone!” she cried. “They’ve all left us!”

“They’ll be back,” Nori said. “Our old friend is just resting. He was tired. Now he waits.”

“And now it’s time for you to sing,” the thief said, pulling her back to her feet.

“Sing?”

“Amazing Grace.”

“I can’t! I don’t know how.”

“You can and you do. You always loved to sing. Stick out your tongue.”

“What?”

The woman, the thief, wiped a tear from her own cheek, collected it on her fingertip. “Stick out your tongue,” she repeated.

A salty fingertip touched her tongue.

She simply remembered how to sing.

She greatly wanted to sing.

She needed to sing.

She couldn’t understand how she could live without singing!

He had been her best audience. She would sing for him a last time.

Nori. She had a name she could keep, but it meant nothing to her. There were other people – she couldn’t remember them, she could only remember remembering them. She could only remember that the memories were powerful, vivid, vital – and forbidden.

“Admiral!”

Fidelity woke from the dream of having memories. Samson lay beside her with his head on her leg. Rafael sat with head bowed, the setting sun illuminating his white hair around the rim of his silhouette, the wind tossing his mane of white behind his neck. She looked to the broken Rhyan who had called to her. He lay nearby, his good arm flexing in the air, fist clenched, as though that would ease the pain. Great masses of cumulonimbus clouds formed a wall above the blue ocean and lightning flashed through their decks and tiers. Whitecaps washed upon the black sand near Daidaunkh’s feet. The coconut palms rattled in the rising wind. She put Samson’s head out of her lap and stood to get circulation back in her legs. She gathered up the materials she had prepared. She walked back to the Rhyan. Samson cried, holding out his hand for the admiral to come back to him. She hardly noticed him, whichever part of her was responsible for him.

The memory of having unbearable memories was itself unbearable. No matter how hard she tried, the people and places would not come back to her. Only the pain of loss remained. They couldn’t be normal memories, but whatever they were they belonged to her, even if she didn’t know how or why. They must also still be inside her, hiding. Something was awakening within her, frightening her, yet demanding her curiosity, her acceptance, and her death. She was no longer Fidelity Demba. Her strong component, that warrior among the personalities coalescing into the person she might become, fought down the eruption of emotion, and ignored the questions without answers.

“Rafael! I need your help. I’m ready to set Daidaunkh’s broken bones.”

It was a harrowing affair for Rafael and her to do what they had to do for Daidaunkh. The Rhyan tried valiantly to refrain from voicing his pain but the arm was too much for him. His wail sent Samson hopping on one leg and holding hands over his ears. The Rhyan’s leg had a simple fracture and swelling and only needed protection and stabilization. When it was over, Rafael retired to the slim shade of a palm tree, sat with his back against it, and let his head nod forward as though he would take a nap. Fidelity made Daidaunkh as comfortable as she could, then went to get Samson where he had fallen. He was curled up on the black sand and he pushed her hand away as she touched his shoulder. She could not have been a good mother, for nothing made her want to console Samson. She went to where Rafael sat and took her place on the other side of the palm tree.

It had been night in Florida. Here in the Pacific it was daytime. She knew Rafael would be tired. He had labored at the easel almost constantly, working on her portrait. She didn’t have to sit in the rattan chair all the time and he would often go find her and stare at her, then go back to the easel. She was amazed at how much detail he had put on the big canvas in so short a time. Now the miraculous portrait was gone forever, consumed by fire.

“Your art.” She spoke quietly, not expecting Rafael to hear her above the thrash of waves upon the beach, and over the wind in the palms.

“My finest painting,” Rafael said mournfully.

“Your wife,” she said. “Your home. Your friend Gator. I’m terribly sorry I brought this upon you, Rafael.”

“You simply brought the wind, Fidelity. Everything was already set to be blown away.”

She stopped speaking to him, as part of her realized she was only reminding him of tragedy. Or did emotions work that way? Would more words accelerate, rather than delay, the closing of the wound? She was out of words for Rafael. Her thoughts scattered to all points of her spinning compass, but for a moment they settled on the translation to this location from Rafael’s destroyed home. She knew Etrhnk had winked them here, but why all four of them? Why do it at all? Was he simply not ready to mete out his final punishment for her? She would settle for that explanation. It hardly mattered. She had no control over anything but the comfort of her companions. And sometimes she could find some control of herself.

Tundra in Pink Tile

 

“Do you know where we are?” Daidaunkh inquired.

He was speaking to her, which Fidelity supposed was a positive sign. She regretted breaking his arm and leg. What was done in the fire of violence seemed convenient at the time but now it appeared cruel. She would, no doubt, continue to make excuses for her actions.

“Yes,” she answered. “Eastern Hemisphere, northern Asia, near the Arctic Circle. It’s interesting to see the mosquitoes like Rhyan blood.” Perhaps her comment was unkind, given his state of mind and body, but his response contained some humor.

“They prefer it. Why are we here?”

“I don’t know. You seem better. How is your pain?”

“The pain is doing very well,” Daidaunkh said. “I hurt like hell.”

“Can I persuade you to not try to kill me until this journey is over?”

“I can’t imagine why you should have that concern. I’ll stop talking now so I can listen to my bones.” The Rhyan started taking deep breaths with eyes squeezed shut.

/

Rafael and Samson crested a rise in the tundra-covered barrens. Rafael walked slowly, partly to stay with Samson and partly because he could move no faster himself. Samson used a piece of antler for a crutch, unsteadily planting it and hopping past it. Rafael watched him carefully, his hand extended near to his elbow, ready should he stumble.

Rafael concentrated on the small things now, finding satisfaction in helping the crippled child. He tried to make Samson talk to him, to work out his feelings. From what little Samson had uttered Rafael knew the boy was vastly inexperienced in knowing how other people thought and felt. He reassured him that the admiral was more concerned for him than even for herself, and Rafael was sure that was true.

“But she is a very complicated person,” he’d said to Samson. “Things are happening inside her that cause her great difficulty. Try to be patient. Everything will be alright.”

/

Through the whine of mosquitoes Fidelity heard a woman’s voice say: “Move close together.” She turned around to see who spoke to her and saw no one. The hair stood up on the back of her neck as she immediately thought of Samson’s imaginary friend. So clear was the voice that she accepted it as proof that Milly was real. She wanted Milly to be real, to prove Samson was not mentally ill. With no other prospect of hope for their situation, she heeded the words. She looked at the man and boy who approached. She looked back into the low sun at the crippled Rhyan who lay on the ground. She stepped back to Daidaunkh. She knelt beside him and waited for Samson and Rafael.

The old man and the boy stopped a short distance away and stared at Fidelity. She beckoned to them. Rafael limped forward. Samson remained away.

“Our little camping pit is over there,” Rafael said upon reaching her. “Is there something wrong with it?”

“You remember we didn’t stay on the island very long,” she said.

“They know where to find us.”

“Samson!” she called. “Samson, listen to me.”

Samson slipped down to sit on the ground, letting the antler fall. He didn’t look toward Fidelity. The low sun reflected off tears in his Asian eyes. She thought he might be mourning Gator. He and the dog had become close friends.

“Samson, Milly says to stay together.”

Fidelity had been stern with him on the tropical beach, feeling that he was demanding too much of her. She was unaccustomed to providing emotional support to a child and was disturbed by his rapid shifts in mood. She thought she would need to go to him and fetch him back but he finally turned a questioning face toward her. After a moment of consideration he leaned over and put his hands on the ground. He walked himself across the ground on hands and knee, keeping the automedic on his severed leg from striking the ground. He reached Fidelity’s side, and pulled within the circle of her arms. She hugged him, glad he came to her.

“Milly is a big liar,” Samson said.

“What do we wait for?” Rafael asked. “And who is Milly?”

The sun disappeared and along with it, the sky and the land. Air pressure changed with a gentle clap. Darkness enveloped them.

“What?” Daidaunkh said in the dark.

The ground shifted beneath her then stabilized. Daidaunkh and Rafael both tilted away from her on either side. Fidelity got up and carried Samson to a glass door. Outside she could see other buildings, a few lights in windows, and stars in the night sky.

“We’re back in Florida,” Fidelity said. She had consulted her ephemeris and her time standard – functions of her data augments. She noted that no time had passed during the translation to this location. A transmat would have required a large fraction of a minute to process four entities. She could only assume her augments were in error.

Daidaunkh wasn’t so quick to assume misperception. “That wasn’t a transmat! And I’m still sitting on the same ground!”

Fidelity found a chair in the dark and set Samson in it. She walked over and operated a manual light switch next to a door. The room filled with light.

Rafael and Daidaunkh occupied a circular hole in the tile floor, inside of which a mound of arctic ground had subsided around its edges into the spaces beneath the floor, exposing the dark subsoil. She rushed back to help Rafael and Daidaunkh off of the mound and out of the hole in the floor. It defied her imagination to explain how it was caused. Daidaunkh was correct. They were moved by something that wasn’t a transmat. The undefinable implication felt both fantastic and dire. She studied the mass of disturbed earth and recorded images of it for later analysis.

“This is my home!” Daidaunkh declared, casting his gaze about the room.

A few pieces of old furniture sparsely populated a living room. There was a kitchen next to the double glass door that opened to a balcony. A hallway led to other rooms.

“I’m hungry,” Samson complained.

“Where’s the toilet?” Fidelity inquired of Daidaunkh.

= = =

He saw the image of a bright pink disc lying on the ground in a treeless wilderness. It took Pan a few moments to recognize the grout-filled joints between tiles and to realize the pink disc was a perfectly formed circular section of what was probably a tiled floor. The wilderness resembled a summer arctic plain of an Earth continent. The perfection of the circular shape tugged on his mind and made him imagine the disc as being cut out of an actual floor. The landscape in which the pink tile seemed totally foreign made Pan think of it being dropped there, after it had been cut out of a floor that had to be far from there. The more Pan stared at this improbable scene, and the longer Etrhnk remained silent, made the phenomenon increase in importance and become threatening in some way. Even as he hoped it would not, Pan’s reservoir of forbidden memories opened for a few startling moments, matching past events in his life that could easily explain how pink floor tile could be sent to an arctic wilderness. He knew Etrhnk was aware of his reaction. He could not moderate his response; it came too suddenly and too vividly, only to be snatched away toward oblivion. Despite himself, Pan tried to grab something of the past, wanting an explanation for himself, even if he had to share it with Etrhnk.

His Marine guards had exited, leaving Pan alone again with the Navy Commander. Etrhnk turned away from the still image on the wall of his meeting room. He regarded Pan with patient but unyielding expectation. “Tell me what you think that means,” Etrhnk ordered.

Pan could only shake his head, not yet sure he believed his own fantastic deduction.

“You are still alive,” Etrhnk said, “because you dared question my ‘algebra of ethics.’ You know things, things that I believe are of great importance to me. Important to me. But you made me examine the moral equations. I haven’t found their solution. I am tempted to make a corollary to the Golden Rule so that I may do to you that which you would do to me, if you were in my position.”

“That fails as a corollary,” Pan dared to point out, surprised at the implied vulnerability of Etrhnk’s position.

“Logically, yes, but you don’t understand my personal stake in this matter. You know what caused this image. You know too much because I showed it to you. I know too much because I made it happen. Our lives are forfeit, perhaps not immediately, but soon. What more can it cost you to verify this one fact to me?”

Pan could think of no reason now not to respond with the truth. He also found it intensely interesting to know Etrhnk had put his own life in jeopardy by his ‘experiment’ on Demba. It was also frightening that Etrhnk had admitted it to Pan.

“What I see,” Pan replied, “is the evidence of an active gate. Someone was transferred from that location to another where the floor was made of pink tile. I assume Admiral Demba was transferred. I wonder if you know that gates are real, and that they have no limit to their range.”

Etrhnk turned back to the image wall and made it change into a recording of activity. Pan saw Demba, Daidaunkh, Rafael, and Samson. He heard them speak. He saw them gather together on the plain of tundra. He saw them disappear at the same instant the pink circle appeared.

“Where did you send them?” Pan asked.

“I did not send them.”

“You said you made it happen.”

“I use a transmat for my experiment. I have no gate. I think it happened because I included the boy in the experiment.”

“Why the boy? Why all of them? Why any of them?”

“This is a game dead men play,” Etrhnk said, dramatically for all the absence of drama in his voice. “I am unethically pleased you could join me.”

/

When the Opera Master was removed, the Golden One came into the room and looked at the image on the wall. “Now you’ve done it,” she said, smiling. “You’re not dead yet, but you keep trying! Why did you move them again? Why did you move them in the first place?”

“You won’t let me kill her,” Etrhnk replied.

“I don’t think you were ever going to kill her,” the golden Constant said, “but I gave you a convenient reason to keep her alive. You’re rather interested in her, I think. I never have thought you were the killer your barbarians’ legend has made you. How many did you actually kill with your bare hands?”

“As many as necessary.”

“Yet the number grows at each game, when the booze starts to flow.”

“It is the efficiency with which I killed that may have impressed them.”

“But you don’t really care for the killing,” she said thoughtfully, moving to where she could capture his gaze. He always tried to look away from her. “My fellow aliens were rather concerned when I chose to meet you alone. ‘Look,’ they said, ‘he’s got to be thinking about his last days of life. He’s different. He may harm you, even kill you. He has nothing to lose.’ Would you comment on that, Etrhnk?”

“I’ll not harm you,” he replied, pausing only briefly to wonder at his own impenetrable reasons. Perhaps, if he was so noble of character, it was the devastation The Lady would bring upon the Essiin and probably many other peoples as revenge. The Golden Ones were sacred to The Lady. Billions would die if one of them were harmed or killed. He felt not even an illogical urge to commit an act of violence against this immortal Golden One.

Constant was trying to make him feel something, and that was an endeavor Etrhnk could faintly appreciate because of her curiosity. He could understand her curiosity. She smiled at him. How many muscles were required to form a smile? Were all of his atrophied?

= = =

“Eat while you can,” Fidelity ordered her ward.

“I don’t like this food,” Samson complained, wrinkling his nose.

“We may not be here long,” she warned.

It was a little game they played, she decided, something to keep her attention and at the same time relieve the pressure of his emotions.

“I’m tired. Can we go home?”

“There is no home,” she replied. “It burned down.”

“I want to take care of Gator. We didn’t bury him.”

“Eat. I have to take care of Daidaunkh.”

“Why? He doesn’t like us. We don’t like him.”

“He’s injured and he has only us to help him.”

“He wouldn’t help us if we were injured.”

“Are you sure? Do you think it’s right to not help him?”

“He doesn’t even have good food in his kitchen.”

She passed by a quiet Rafael and took his hand, gently urged him to his feet. He had been without sleep for too long, unless his frequent catnaps were effective. He followed her into the bedroom where Daidaunkh lay on a futon on the floor. Rafael knelt on one side of the Rhyan and Fidelity knelt on the other.

“I have a knife in that drawer,” Daidaunkh said, pointing to a chest of drawers. “I assume you know where to stick it in me to stop the pain.”

“Would that be a kindness to you?” Fidelity asked.

“I suppose it would. Never mind, then. I can’t have you being kind to me.”

“Indeed. In fact, I’m here to hurt you more. I need to adjust your splints. I have better material to bind them with. I hope I haven’t destroyed an article of clothing you wanted to keep.”

“You presume I’ll live long enough to need a change of clothing.”

“Good. You have a sense of humor, dark though it is.”

The hand of Daidaunkh’s unbroken arm reached for her and grasped her forearm tightly. It disturbed his injuries to do this but she could sense he intended no harm to her. “Perhaps it’s a grim humor, Admiral, but don’t dismiss my words as empty. The only reason I was alive to make my feeble attempt to kill you was Denna. I’ve only lived this long to see the day she would be happy again. My life was already over. I would consider it an ironic honor if you would finish me.”

“You’re letting the pain think for you, Daidaunkh.”

“Don’t waste your breath! I’m not worth it! I’m not worth anything! I killed this man’s wife! Killed her twice! Beheaded her in a drunken rage the first time. Lucky there was a Clinic head-bag nearby. I loved her. I shouldn’t have made her come with me. She didn’t like coming back to her old home, her old man, where her son died, all of that. I killed her by bringing her with me. She wasn’t as bad as you think. Did you see her face when she shot the dog? She loved animals. She wouldn’t let them kill the tiger that killed her son. And can you imagine any normal person continuing a friendship with their murderer? I’ve cried for that woman every day for all the years I’ve known her. She was broken and we couldn’t fix her. But she could make you laugh, even when you knew she was one word away from bottomless grief. Leave me here. Jarwekh may come to check on my place and find me. Go and hide from this insanity!”

“I suspect they put transponders in our bodies during node transit,” she said. “They can find us no matter where we are. I’ll try to separate myself from you, to see if they will leave you alone.”

“Who are they?”

“The transmat is Navy. I’m sure it’s Admiral Etrhnk. The other device is unknown to me.”

“Why are they doing it?”

“I don’t know. I would assume, if he wanted me dead, Etrhnk could have dumped me into a volcano or any of a thousand other lethal places. I’m guessing Samson has something to do with whatever the motivation may be.”

“Why the boy?”

She had no answer for him. She shook her head. She looked across the Rhyan to Rafael.

“Rafael, how are you holding up? You know it was an accident that we killed your wife.”

“Not ‘we.’ Me. I killed her. I felt the board crush her neck. Yes, it was an accident, but it doesn’t lessen the guilt.”

“Did you even know it was your wife? Your wife was dark-skinned.”

“I knew she changed her appearance. I knew Daidaunkh and that she consorted with him. God knows, I may have wanted to hurt her! I thought I was long past such selfish feelings. But I see now that my hermit’s life has been the ultimate act of selfishness. Perhaps I could have helped her if I had remained available to her, reached out to her from time to time. We all failed her, Daidaunkh, but I most of all.”

“Hopefully, she’s finally at peace,” Daidaunkh said, his dark Rhyan eyes close to flooding with tears.

Fidelity inspected and adjusted Daidaunkh’s splints as gently as possible. She rose and started to leave.

Rafael placed a restraining hand on her forearm. “I worry that even if you leave us there will continue to be trouble. I’m too aged and weak to protect Samson from all the dangers.”

“There’s little we can do about it. Find him a new crutch. Eat. Get some rest. I suspect I’ll not get far, and the journey will continue.”

Fidelity stopped in the kitchen to write a note on the surface of the table. She saw that Samson had eaten everything on his plate and now slept on the sofa. Rafael followed her to the door. Before she opened the door, Fidelity turned and put a hand on Rafael’s shoulder.

“If you never see me again, think about life, Rafael. Think about Samson.”

“I think he is your child more than anyone else’s, Fidelity. You also think about Samson.”

She opened the door. He locked it behind her.

Fidelity saw very few people near Daidaunkh’s apartment. All of them retreated at her approach. Dark buildings and dark streets surrounded her. She walked toward distant light, then picked up her pace to a loping jog. A cat ran in front of her and she dodged it. Just as she dodged the cat she felt the tingle of a transmat reference field and pulled away from it. She tried to run a random route down the street to avoid capture. It was only a matter of time before the transmat operator guessed correctly and she was paralyzed by the web of the reference field.

Calling the Moon

 

Jon Horss had to be doing something: Sugai Mai now knew this part of his character, and since it was a Mnro Clinic vehicle she had provided him in which to do his something, she felt justified in accompanying him, to observe his use of company equipment. That she found his presence stimulating for reasons other than his penchant for driving too fast nagged at her self-analysis.

They flew down a dark avenue. Mai hadn’t thought he would go this fast! She hoped the safety override system was functional. Horss slowed the ambulance, kept the windows open, and studied the pavement and the buildings. Mai wondered what he expected to see. He halted their forward motion and directed the aircar upward. They came to rest, floating above the street at the third-floor level of a 21st-century apartment building.

“There,” Horss said.

“Where? What?”

“Those windows are cleaner than the others. It should be an occupied apartment. I suppose entrance doors are designed to resist assault in these neighborhoods?”

“Probably. Mine is, but I live in a better neighborhood.”

Horss maneuvered the aircar over the building and to a narrow balcony on the other side of the same floor. He let the aircar drift over the edge of the balcony and slowly ram the glass door with its tapered front end. Mai gasped and felt disappointed that Captain Horss would wreck somebody’s apartment, as if being a Navy officer gave him that right. The glass shattered into thousands of small pieces. He put the vehicle into station-keeping mode and exited, dropping onto the balcony with athletic agility.

“Hey!” Mai complained, again disappointed but not sure why. She had emerged from the aircar door, ready to drop down but she hesitated because of the height. Horss came back and coached her down, taking her legs in his arms to lower her to the balcony. She turned around in close contact with him, then pushed away from him before she did something foolish. That she even allowed thoughts of such possibilities was a warning of how strong her feelings had become. She wasn’t used to this male-female thing. Her hormones had resumed production as she had prepped herself for the possibility of becoming pregnant, but not pregnant by Jon Horss! She was constantly rethinking the prospect of having a baby as a result of being in the company of the Navy captain. She had long ago forgotten the biological urges that nagged at her when near a man like Jon. Look, she even thought of him by his first name! Sex. The wrong time. The wrong person!

“He’s not here,” she said irritably, peering into the darkness beyond the shattered door, and now annoyed that her hand strayed over to clutch his shirt sleeve.

“It was a longshot,” Horss said. “I thought Etrhnk might send the Rhyan home.” He took her hand, as if he had every right to lead her over the broken glass and into the apartment. “This probably isn’t the right place, but it does look lived-in.”

Then Jon released her hand, apparently oblivious to what it might mean to her, and he moved away in the dark to the middle of the room. Mai found a light switch, flipped it and saw Jon staring down at a large hole in the pink floor and at a mound of dirt and plant material in the hole. He knelt and touched the dark soil, smelled his fingers. He pinched a small amount of the loose material and put it in a pocket of his tropical-style shirt.

“Damned strange!” he said, walking around the pile. “And fresh.”

“Someone ate a meal not long ago,” Mai said, looking at the dirty dishes. She saw the writing on the surface of the kitchen table. She read the words Admiral Demba had written. “Ohmygod!”

“What’s it say?” Jon wondered, coming over, reading the message. “Crap! He’s got all four of them. The Rhyan has two broken limbs but Demba, Samson, and the artist are alright.”

“Who has them?” she asked.

“It must be Etrhnk.”

“Daidaunkh needs me,” Mai said with complaint in her voice. “And Rafael – he’s too aged for the stress he must be under. And the boy! How much more must the child suffer? Let’s go back to the Clinic. I’m ready to call Doctor Mnro.”

= = =

The hospital was six hundred years old, built in an era of epidemics, incurable diseases, and frequent physical injuries. It had six floors, four main wings, two parking garages, and more than a thousand rooms and labs. The Mnro Clinic occupied one hallway of rooms on the first floor of one wing. It was windowless and fortified. The rest of the hospital was empty.

Mai sat down at her desk and started to activate the space communications set, but an incoming call to her in-body unit stopped her. She sat and listened.

Horss was left to explore Mai’s office and also to think strange thoughts. Why is that mound of dirt in Daidaunkh’s apartment? Why is Mai still tolerating my presence? Of course, I will never get anywhere with her, not that I want to! The dirt has to have come from someplace else but what is the significance of it? Mai has to be waiting for me to make a fool of myself but I won’t mind that. I always did make a fool of myself with women, and they seemed to like it. What will I do with the rest of my life, now that Demba has got me removed from the Navy?

Horss looked at everything in Mai’s office but hardly noted anything but the three oil paintings. They were signed by Rafael de LaGuardia. He stared at the images for a long time, losing himself in imagining impossibilities. The pictures affected how Horss thought of Mai and how he felt about her, although he couldn’t fully realize that was what had happened. He did fully realize that he wanted copies of all three portraits of Mai. He recorded the portraits with his visual augment. A relationship with Sugai Mai? A romantic relationship? He wasn’t immune to such feelings but the Navy always completely removed the possibility of any serious relationships. It had to be casual affairs, as anyone dear to him would always be at risk. However, if his Navy career was at an end… Was that what it was – getting serious about the first woman he could afford to be serious about? It was difficult not to think about Mai, even when events overshadowed personal feelings. Why is that damned pile of dirt in Daidaunkh’s apartment?

“Opera week,” Mai said after many moments of silent conversation. “That was my temporary staff. They have a full emergency room down the hall, including three fatalities in stasis. Looks like I’ll be working all night. Again.”

“Anything I can do to help?”

“Be careful what you volunteer for.”

“I actually have some experience in medical emergencies,” Horss said.

“You were in combat?” Mai asked with concern, or maybe disapproval.

“Yes, that’s what the Navy calls it when you give your problems a chance to shoot back. I did two years as a medical corpsman with a bunch of Marines who were never very careful.”

“That’s… well, not so wonderful, I think. How did you…like it?”

“I don’t ever talk about it, Mai. Sorry.” That, and a lot of other stuff, Horss thought.

“Yes, well, I think I understand. I’m calling Doctor Mnro now.”

“Do you want privacy?”

“No! I want help!”

“Is she that bad? The Mother of Immortality?”

“Mother Superior! Oh, I guess not. It’s just that… You’ll see.”

Mai placed her call to Doctor Mnro. An old-fashioned virtual display panel above the surface of her desk showed the route of the call as a graphical representation of the Earth-Moon system and a red line connecting points on each sphere. The line turned green when the lunar headquarters of the Mnro Clinic answered the call. A person’s image appeared in one quadrant of the display.

“Luna Mnro Clinic,” the receptionist – perhaps a real person – greeted. “Sugai Mai. How may I help you?”

“I need to speak to Doctor Mnro.”

“Just a moment.” The man glanced briefly away. “She isn’t here today but let me check for special instructions.” The display quadrant went gray for a while then restored the receptionist’s image. “There’s a block on calls to Doctor Mnro until further notice. You can leave a message.”

“I have to speak to her now!” Mai demanded, impatiently. “This is an emergency!”

“I can connect you to Deputy Director Ramadhal,” the receptionist responded with concern. “That’s the limit of my authority.”

“Thank you. Do so, please.”

After a lengthy pause the entire display filled with the image of a dark-skinned man in surgical grays as he traversed a hospital corridor in the gliding hops required by weak lunar gravity. “Sugai Mai! Greetings to you! Is there some emergency there on Earth? Ah! It’s Opera Week! Do you have critical needs, then?”

“No, sir. My staff is busy as usual but they’ll survive. I need to speak directly to Doctor Mnro. Now!”

“Don’t we all! You are agitated. Is it serious?”

“It’s a… private matter, but, yes, very serious. She will want to know about it. I’m sorry, I don’t feel free to discuss it… here.”

Doctor Ramadhal came to a halt in the hospital corridor. He looked around, frowned, put one finger in the air. “Let me call you back in just a moment.” The picture disappeared.

Mai and Horss looked at each other. Mai leaned back in her chair. The display then indicated a call of local origin requesting connection. She waved at the display and the image of Jarwekh appeared.

“Good evening, Doctor Sugai, Captain Horss. I am, of course, on duty. I need to warn you that there will be more trouble than usual, more injuries, and more fatalities. There’s a rumor that Pan has been arrested by the Navy. He has missed several rehearsals. That will have a destabilizing effect on much of the population.”

“I agree. Is there anything you want me to do? I can call the EPA.”

“You might put them on alert. I don’t anticipate complete anarchy, unless there’s a cancellation of the Opera.”

“Try not to kill too many, Jarwekh. We don’t have many empty stasis units left.”

“As you always command, so I always obey.” Jarwekh terminated his call.

Horss moved closer to Mai, put a hand in one of his shirt pockets, and sprinkled the contents of the pocket in a little pile on Mai’s desk. “Do you know what that is?”

“Some kind of plant material and soil,” she answered, frowning at the mess on her desk.

“Tundra, I would guess,” Horss said. “From the Arctic. The stuff in the hole in Daidaunkh’s floor.” Horss was disturbed by this weirdly out-of-place material. He was even a little concerned for the admiral’s safety, perhaps because she had the boy with her. It was unfair that Samson was threatened by Demba’s predicament.

“They were transmatted to the Arctic, then,” Mai said. “But why would they bring back some tundra?”

“A lot of it! Did you see the pile? I’ve never seen a transmat do that. People with other objects, yes, but that mound was probably the ground they were standing on. Very strange!”

“That’s almost scary,” Mai said, after thinking about it for a moment.

Horss was cleaning the mess from Mai’s desk when the call was returned by Deputy Director Ramadhal. Doctor Ramadhal reappeared, this time in a private office.

“This is a secure circuit,” Doctor Ramadhal said. “First, introduce me to the person beside you. I may have to ask him to leave.”

“This is Captain Jon Horss, Union Navy. He’s to be the captain of the Freedom.”

Horss almost laughed at Mai’s assumption. He knew he would never set foot aboard the ship.

“I’m sorry,” Ramadhal said. “I’m not aware of many Navy matters. Is that a ship?”

“Yes. It’s the new ship that’s being sent on an exploratory mission to the galactic hub. Captain Horss was the captain of the Navy’s flagship, the Eclipse. He’s Navy but I trust him.”

She trusts me? Horss wondered. I don’t even trust myself!

“Captain Horss, a pleasure to meet you. Sugai Mai, I have shocking news for you. Doctor Mnro is retiring from the Clinic!”

“I need to speak to her now.”

“What is wrong? Did you hear what I said?”

“Ordinarily I would be picking my chin off the floor. It’s an historic piece of news. But it’s of secondary importance to me at the moment. It may also be of secondary importance to Doctor Mnro when she hears what I have to say. How do I talk to her?”

“Now you worry me! Call her residence. I’ll give you her private number and a priority code. I confess, I’ve just used the priority code today, to verify her intention to retire. She didn’t actually use the word ‘retire’ when she notified the deputy directors that she would be leaving. Unfortunately, the priority code didn’t gain me access to her, which leaves me rather hurt and bewildered. Perhaps it will work for you. Everyone knows you’re her favorite field director.”

“Everyone but me!”

“Please, if you’re able to talk to her, ask her the questions I would ask her. Tell me what she says. I’m certainly intrigued by what you say could be more important to her than this momentous change in her career. Record this.”

Mai listened and committed the private communication number and the priority code to augmented memory.

“Thank you, Doctor Ramadhal. I promise that, if I’m able, I’ll contact you with information about Doctor Mnro. Goodbye.”

Mai cut the connection and quickly fed in the private number. The red line lanced toward the moon and landed on a small crater near the eastern limb. The line stayed red for a long time while a security barrier decided whether to allow connection, and finally the line turned green.

A recorded message played: “Aylis Mnro is unavailable. Please leave a message.”

Mai slapped her desk with the palm of her hand, quickly suppressed her frustration, and then composed her message.

“Will you please answer your phone? Ramadhal told me to say apocalypse. I’ll give you a better word – Pan. The Opera Master. It’s vital I speak with you! Call me as soon as possible.”

Mai waved the connection off, got up, and paced around the room. As she passed near Horss he reached out and guided her into his arms. When she began to resist Horss released her. He was astonished he had done it. He was also surprised she initially allowed it.

“Bad timing,” she stated.

“That sounds encouraging.”

“This is just sexual instinct, Captain,” she said, subdued. “What Pan didn’t tell you – what I didn’t tell you – is that I’m leaving Earth, going on a hiatus from the Clinic. In order to have a baby.”

“Oh.”

“Feel differently about me now?”

“I feel happy for you,” Horss replied, slightly delayed by an odd feeling of something very much like disappointment. “Parenthood is a wonderful thing.”

“You’ve been a parent?” Color rose in Mai’s face. She was embarrassed at having asked the question.

“I apologize for holding you,” Horss said without replying to her question. He had lost the small spark of daring that overrode his Navy training and his accursed physiological augments. Now he was truly disappointed. He still wanted to hold Mai. He didn’t want to answer her question. He didn’t want to ask his own questions. Did she have a partner, a husband somewhere?

“You’re a parent?” she queried again and immediately seemed irritated at having done that. She turned away from Horss, hiding her expression.

Horss felt defeated and lonely. Why did he think so much of Sugai Mai? He would never be close to her after this. Silence would be a form of lying. He had to confess: “I had a wife and daughter.”

“Had?”

“We go to the heart of things in a rush.” He found courage, useless though it was. Horss circled Mai to observe her face. She pivoted to avoid his eyes. “You blush even to the back of your neck,” he commented hopefully. “What does that mean?”

“It means I can’t control how I feel about you!”

Horss was amazed at learning Mai had favorable feelings toward him. He was shocked that she might feel romantic about him. He didn’t trust how he felt about her, he didn’t understand it, and he was still too close to the Navy Way of Life and feared such a relationship. Yet he was careless in his response. “I’m in a similar state.”

“You’ve met your quota.”

“My quota?”

“The ‘Price of Continuity.’ One man, one woman, one child.”

“You considered me as a potential father for your baby?”

“Yes. No! My mother would probably never approve such a match. I’m confused! I have absurd thoughts.”

“I’m deeply honored. I’ll treasure your absurd thoughts.”

Mai turned to Horss with a storm of emotions on her blushing face. Horss extended a hand to her, palm up: a peace offering. She looked at his hand and grew calm. She took his hand and held it. As she opened her mouth to speak, the communications display flashed with an incoming call. She waved it on with her free hand before thinking.

“What is this now?” The caller announced with mock severity, turning within the display field to apparently see them holding hands. “Do you have a gentleman friend, Mai-Mai?”

“Who are you…?” Mai gasped, apparently soon knowing it was Doctor Mnro.

“Oh, the hair. Just another of my bald phases. So, are you going to introduce me to this attractive young man? He isn’t Navy, is he? He has that military bearing and an eye for pretty women.” Mai couldn’t get any words out. The image of the bald woman, a pale and mischievous face, looked from Mai to Horss and, addressing Horss, nodded toward Mai. “What happened?”

“I disappointed her. My name is Jon Horss, captain, Union Navy. Perhaps captain of the U.S.S. Freedom.”

“Pleased to meet you, Jon Horss. Perhaps captain? If you were chosen by Fidelity Demba, then you are its captain. What are you both doing on Earth?”

“You know Admiral Demba?”

I’ll ask the questions here. What’s this about Pan?”

Horss started to answer but Mai found her voice. “Admiral Etrhnk invited Pan to dinner aboard his ship yesterday and he hasn’t returned. We think he’s being held prisoner!”

“Why would Etrhnk do such a thing?” Doctor Mnro asked. “Perhaps you’d better tell me more.”

Mai and Horss told the story of Samson and Admiral Demba, and of all the events up to the present. When they finished, the bald Doctor Mnro said nothing for several moments as she thought about what she heard.

“At least he hasn’t killed her,” Mnro finally said. “Yet.”

“What about Pan?” Mai asked. “Can you make Etrhnk let him go?”

“Has he touched her? Has Pan touched Demba?”

Mai and Horss looked at each other, then looked back at the image of Doctor Aylis Mnro.

“We don’t know,” Mai replied. “Pan visited her early yesterday. Captain Horss was the only one to speak to Pan before he left.”

“He told me she was apparently remembering things,” Horss said. He told Mnro what he overheard of Pan’s image-link conversation with Etrhnk.

“Damn!” Mnro swore.

“It was her DNA that set off the alarms, wasn’t it?” Mai asked.

“Woke me up out of a sound sleep,” Mnro said.

“Why?”

“Why not? Sleeping isn’t living, after all.”

“I don’t understand. Why the Denial of Service? Is she Fidelity Demba or is she not? And why are you retiring from the Clinic?”

“I’m not. I just can’t run it for a while.”

“Why? For how long?”

“I can’t say and I don’t know! Did Ramadhal put you up to grilling me? Yes. Any more questions to which I can give disappointing answers?”

“Yes,” Horss said. “Who is Samson?”

“I haven’t any idea,” Mnro answered simply and sincerely.

“Pan?” Mai said. “Can you do anything about Pan?”

Doctor Mnro smiled and vanished.

Losing a Father and a Daughter

 

“Why? Why must you leave?”

The idea came to him at this most unsuitable time, the idea that he never thought his father’s light color abnormal. He was dark. His mother was dark. His father was almost pale.

“I can’t tell you why,” his father said, “except that I’ve been summoned.”

“But your work isn’t finished. Things are worse. You’re giving up.”

“I have the patience. Your mother has the patience. Society changes for the better only slowly. It changes for the worse quickly. I have you both to support me. I would never give up. But I’ve been summoned.”

“What can be more important than the Personal Rights Movement?”

“The person who summons me understands our mission and fully supports it, Son. He wouldn’t summon me if a greater need didn’t exist.”

“What could be more important, Father? You work for harmony in the lives of billions of people.”

“It will come to nothing if a greater threat isn’t countered.”

“Who summons you? What threatens us?”

“I can’t tell you, Son.”

“You won’t soon return, will you?”

“That is implicit in the summons.”

“Mother can’t go with you?”

“She can but she won’t. She won’t be permitted to go as far as I go.”

“Why not? If you can live on Rhyandh, she could live on Essiia.”

“She could. But I don’t travel to Essiia.”

The implications of his father’s statements staggered him emotionally. He likely expected never to see his wife and son again. His father perhaps even expected to die.

“I confess to feeling very sad now, Father. You’ve wasted your training on me.”

“Nothing has been wasted on you, Son. You take care of your feelings very well. Perhaps it’s that small amount of Earth in your heredity that, paradoxically, brings moderation to your feelings. You must know that I have all these terrible emotions that tear at me behind my armor. Pity me, that I can’t moderate them well enough to let them show. I would never be able to leave your mother and you without my training.”

“Let me go with you! There are so many things I want to learn about your people and the Earthians.”

His father stared into his eyes for a long moment but soon enough came to a decision. “We must leave immediately. Wave to your mother. It will be a long time before you see her again.”

He turned around and found his mother standing at the big picture window overlooking the arid land that surrounded their home. He waved to her. She put her hand in the air to return the gesture, then her hand went to her face. He knew what that small movement meant even though he couldn’t read his mother’s expression from this distance. It made his heart ache. He couldn’t swallow. He turned and saw his father walking toward the flyer. He told himself he could change his mind, just deliver his father to the transportation terminal and bring the flyer home. That was what he could do. But how could he let his father go out of his life? He had to follow him as far as he could, until he understood why it had to be. Only then could he return to his mother.

The scene began to fade from the projection screen in his mind and a panic seized him as he realized he had seen the face of his father and already it was dissolving from memory. He rushed to catch up to the impression of his father, to get in front of it, to stare at it, but his feet couldn’t move fast enough, or exist long enough. As the glare of the desert plain faded into the dimness of his detention room, Pan satisfied himself with what he did remember. He had a father he loved, and some terrible thing had caused him to go away forever. He lay back down on the floor, ignoring the furniture in the room, and waited for sleep or for another journey into a lost memory.

= = =

“I put on a good show, didn’t I?” Mnro asked.

“I’m quite proud of you,” Mnro said.

“I’m scared,” Mnro admitted.

“I know you are,” Mnro agreed.

“Do I dare call on Etrhnk? When was the last time we talked to him? What did we talk about?”

“I would have to look at the appointment database. We may never have spoken to him. My memory is no better than yours.”

“That’s your penalty for being a copy of an old woman who wasn’t in the prime of her life.”

“What will you say to him?”

“I don’t know. He’s in his flagship, orbiting Earth?”

“Yes. What are you thinking?”

“Don’t you know? Who do we have who can be an entourage?”

“The usual bodyguards, perhaps a deputy or two from the Clinic. How about half a dozen gardeners?”

“If we get their hands clean and dress them up. Let’s call Ramadhal and see how nosy he is.”

= = =

“I plan to sleep for at least a century.” The first cloud of the day threw a shadow across her dark face.

“That’s too long, isn’t it?”

“I’ve just followed the plan, done what I’m told. I like you as a Latina.”

“I’ve just tried to find a little happiness. I… think I like you as a…”

“All I could manage is dark skin and brown eyes. I’m afraid of being recognized.”

“I recognized you.”

“I know. I saw the dread in your eyes.”

“No! I’m honestly happy to see you, Aylis. I’ve missed you terribly.” She was happy but she did dread. She knew what this unexpected reunion must mean.

“And I missed you, Zak. I think of you every day.”

She believed her but she could also hear dread in Aylis’s voice.

There was a marching band parading by the far perimeter of Jackson Square. It had two sousaphones, two tempos, and two moods. The woodwinds and percussion played a slow, sad tempo, then the brass would push the tempo fast and merry, with the sousaphones bellowing. She saw Jamie reacting to the distant band and was pleased that she liked the music.

“But isn’t your little girl a bit too European?” Aylis asked.

It was a question leading to more dread and she answered with a hopeless attempt to avoid the consequences. “Her father was European. He looked a lot like her.”

“You speak of him in the past tense. What happened?”

“He’s gone. I don’t want to talk about it.” He was gone, yes, but even her memory of him could now be in jeopardy.

“She reminds me of someone. Why didn’t you tell me about her? She’s really quite adorable. How old is she? What’s her name?”

“She’s six years old. Her name is Jamie. I adopted her when she was a baby.”

“Adopted her? You’re not her biological mother?”

“I wanted to be.”

“You’ve had her all this time without my knowing? Why couldn’t you let me know?”

“You’re so busy and important, Aylis. I know that’s no excuse, but…”

The dark woman sighed and put her arm around her shoulders. They sat on a park bench amid the planned fall of autumn leaves, in New Orleans, L4, watching children play.

“You don’t trust me,” Aylis said. “That’s why you’re lying about your daughter – your real daughter.”

“I’ve remembered The Plan, Aylis. I don’t want to sleep! I’m seventy-seven now and I was never a mother.” It was the same as saying the memory editing failed. It was the same as saying she had already violated The Plan. It was the same as saying, “Kill me.”

Aylis withdrew her arm and took one of her hands. She squeezed her hand gently.

“You know Jamie isn’t in The Plan, Zakiya.”

“Oh, Aylis, don’t! You can’t take her away from me! She’s my whole life!”

“If you look at me you’ll see tears in my eyes. I’ve been dreading this day ever since I found out about Jamie. It’s my last personal duty before I go to sleep.”

She looked at this familiar face and saw tears brimming in brown eyes that should be blue and rolling down brown cheeks that should be pale. Her own tear ducts exploded. She held hands with Aylis and waited for the storm to pass. It irritated her that she calmed down so quickly, that she gave up her small rebellion so quietly. She wanted to scream, to somehow demonstrate dramatically the tragedy of the moment. But she knew that Aylis understood, that it hurt Aylis as much as it hurt herself.

She wiped her face. She hugged Aylis hard, then stood up and found the strength to call to Jamie. Already she could imagine the pain she would feel when she looked upon her daughter’s face for the last time. If the imagined pain was this terrible, what must the real pain be?

Jamie came running to her over the green grass of the park, leaped into her arms, and looked at Aylis weeping.

“Mama, what’s wrong with her? Who is she?”

“She’s Mama’s best friend – after you. We’ll visit her and see lots of interesting people and things.”

She shouldn’t hate Aylis for taking Jamie. She should blame herself for being so weak that she had needed to give birth to Jamie. She had these wonderful six years of never being alone and this selfishness would now hurt all three of them.

She had to remember.

She had to remember.

She had to remember!

“Jamie!” She could barely hear herself above the rush of the wind. Samson stirred against her. “Jamie,” she said again, locking the name in her memory.

“Who is Jamie?” Rafael asked, still awake.

Shredded clouds raced across a brilliant gibbous moon which illuminated snow on the mountain slopes. They lay on the ground in the lee of a boulder, huddled together for warmth, covered with a layer of dry vegetation. Fidelity moved her head closer to Rafael’s in order to converse more easily. Samson lay between them.

“A child,” she struggled to answer. She almost said more, she was so distraught. Now she had a name and it was her daughter’s name! She had lost her. How many more people had she lost from her life? Why couldn’t she at least have coherent memories of them to relive before she died?

“Another flashback that you don’t want to admit is really yours?” Raphael asked.

“They’re all so sad,” she said, remembering their emotional impact if not their details.

“There must be a reason the memories have returned to you now. Tell me about them. I can’t sleep in this wind.”

“I suspect others are listening, Rafael, others who might use the information against me. I’m sorry I can’t tell you. I’m sorry you got dragged into this.”

“I don’t mind! Verdad! This is quite an adventure, yes?”

“For someone who sat behind a desk for thirty years, it’s too much adventure!” She sighed. “It may snow. Daidaunkh is still too exposed. I need to get more straw.”

Fidelity got up, hugging herself against the cold, and picked her way through the rocks until she came to a down-slope field of dry grass rippling in the moonlight. She pulled the tall grass apart, collecting it, and angled piles so the wind wouldn’t blow most of it away. The clouds thickened as she worked, dimming the moonlight. She gathered the straw into a large armload and turned up-slope. Only a few steps toward the rocks she froze, then the ground seemed to open below her and she fell to one knee, dropping her straw.

“Who is Jamie?” a deep male voice behind a bright light inquired.

Fidelity barely realized a transmat had grabbed her. She had lost her balance but was still intact and properly reassembled. She was cold and tired. She rubbed her bare arms and shoulders for warmth as she rose from bended knee. Her augmented eyes filtered the light and brought the image of a dark Navy officer beyond the light beam into focus. She pulled herself to military attention, and saluted… Navy Commander Admiral Etrhnk!

“Admiral,” she replied, “Jamie is the name of a child.” She didn’t care that her voice said other things as well. She didn’t feel like filtering all of the rediscovered nuances of meaning out of her voice, so that she could play at being a deathly-unemotional admiral.

Etrhnk came forward into the bright light, quite near her, breathtakingly close. She exhaled, trying to calm her tactical augments, and felt other internal devices stimulate her body and make the fatigue evaporate. She was never this close to Etrhnk before. She felt compelled to study his features, as if seeing him for the first time. He was tall and slightly lighter of skin than herself. His eyes brushed over her – he seemed to avoid looking directly at her – and she glimpsed some expression she couldn’t analyze, still unexpected for its mystery.

“You’re real,” she said.

“I’m not an image, Admiral Demba.”

He knelt down on one knee, startling her, and began gathering the spilled straw into a pile at her feet. She wondered at this action – his gathering of her dropped grass. It was almost as if it was a courtesy, and surely not a strange gesture of humility. She wondered why he was close enough to touch. The transmat node would have defensive armaments, of course, yet he was so close…

“What is the significance of this child?” he asked, implying he also knew something of Samson. “I watched you sleeping in the moonlight. It surprised me when you shouted out this word, this name. You continually surprise me, Admiral Demba.”

She remained silent and at attention, looking down upon his bobbing head. Etrhnk continued to gather straw, now walking on his knees around her as he brushed and grasped at the straw, piling it before her. It was bizarre, or at least surreal, and offered her no useful insight into the Navy Commander’s intent. Her instinct was to reveal as little of her own intentions as possible.

“No need to stand at attention, Admiral.” The Navy Commander stood up and backed away from her.

She met his eyes finally and she didn’t see what she would have expected. He was looking at her, not at a Navy admiral he needed to punish. She also saw something else: he wasn’t pure Essiin, perhaps not Essiin at all. She should have wondered how she could be such an expert on physical heredity, but she spoke before giving it enough thought. “You’re not truly Essiin, are you?”

“I will tell you who I am not, if you will tell me who you are not.”

“I’m not who I think I am,” she answered.

“I’m not who I am supposed to be. You aren’t afraid of me, Fidelity Demba. You’re the senior of all of us. Perhaps I should fear you. But none of that matters to you, I think. Jamie matters to you.”

His knowledge of her daughter made her hesitate but there was nothing to be done about it. “I believe she is my daughter.” It was almost delicious, telling the truth, even as fear soured the sweetness. She might not have revealed the fact, but it was as though maternal pride had betrayed her.

“Again you surprise me,” Etrhnk stated factually.

Near enough to touch. Exposing his subtle flaws. Did he not believe her capable of critical analysis, or did he not care? Why would he not care – unless he intended to kill her soon? Or was there never any possibility that she could learn something of Etrhnk? Why did he intrigue her?

“Do you have a purpose for what you’re doing to me and to the three people with me?” she asked, almost demanded.

“Shall we trade information? Who do you think the boy Samson is?”

“He’s the child of someone named Milly,” she answered, hoping to dislodge some knowledge from the one person who should know everything.

“Milly? Who is Milly?” He responded with apparently sincere ignorance.

She was surprised, and also disappointed that he might be ignorant of what she thought was an extremely important element of Samson’s mystery. “Perhaps more than one person,” she answered, “but invisible, a voice in the wilderness. I believe she wanted me to have Samson, to take care of him. What is your purpose with me?”

“To learn your purpose. What is your purpose?”

“I merely wanted a fine captain for my ship. The ship was an end in itself, perhaps escape.”

He weighed her answer and seemed to accept its truth. “The boy has changed everything?” he surmised.

“Everything has changed,” she answered with more emotion than she should have revealed. “I have changed. When I discover who I am, perhaps I’ll finally know my purpose.”

“Are you Ruby Reed?”

“I am not, but I probably was.”

“You can sing?”

“Yes, and I don’t know why or how. How did you learn of Ruby Reed?”

“You don’t remember a piano player named Harry?”

“No, but I know the person who claims he was Harry. You have the Opera Master?”

“A very interesting person. Why would he be having similar memory problems?”

“I would like to know that also. He can’t tell you?”

“Perhaps. Eventually.”

She knew then that Pan was Etrhnk’s prisoner. She found she had room in her concerns to care about Pan. She hardly had time to think about it, but Pan was… family. She knew him more than a century ago. That she remembered too little of him was an inverse measure of his importance. Memories were sacrificed, perhaps lost forever. Why?

Etrhnk paused, changed topic. “You shouldn’t have taken Horss from me.”

“You shouldn’t have ignored my request for his services.”

“That request – if you sent it – never reached my attention.”

“Even if that were true, you shouldn’t have done what you did to Captain Horss.”

“I did nothing to him. What do you think I did to him?”

She told him. She told him what happened in the African Space Elevator. He listened and accepted her account without apparent concern or need for more detail. He backed away and continued to regard her with mysterious intensity. She remained at the transmat focus with her pile of straw. She wondered more about Etrhnk, wondered what this interview actually meant.

“You care about Horss,” she ventured. “You know who put the worm in him.”

“There are things you shouldn’t dwell upon,” he warned.

“Tundra in the middle of a Florida island apartment?”

“I hope you find yourself and your purpose.” Etrhnk was ending the conversation. He turned his back to her and spoke a last time. “There is a Marine officer named Jamie Jones who was just assigned to the Freedom.”

Jamie Jones? How rare was that name? Did he suspect or even know this Marine officer was her daughter? Could she be? What a terrible and wonderful way to end this meeting!

And she didn’t want the meeting to end! What did he know about this Jamie? Perhaps she could even negotiate for a better outcome of her situation, because Etrhnk seemed interested in her for other than political reasons. She also had a feeling that she should be more interested in Etrhnk – for other than political reasons. She was surprised at the thought and entirely helpless to imagine why. Etrhnk was in no way the person she had always assumed he was.

= = =

She held onto the straw in her arms and picked her way up the slope in the dark. The wind had slacked off and flakes of snow tickled her face as she walked. She found her companions in the rocks, tucked the straw around Daidaunkh, and went back for more. She made several trips for straw in the night before burrowing into her place beside Samson and Rafael.

“Jamie was my daughter,” she said to herself, as she closed her eyes. She wasn’t surprised to find the Navy personnel record of Jamie Jones in her data augment. It was such a remarkable record that it frightened her to imagine how easily she could have lost this woman who might be her daughter. Was she her daughter? Why else would a Navy personnel record be in her personal data augment? How had it gotten there? It was impossible for her to sleep now.

= = =

[What are you doing?] Threatening.

[I won’t tell you] Defiant.

[You’ve been feeding coordinates to someone.]

[It’s what I do.]

[You’d better tell me!]

[Or you’ll do what?]

= = =

[It’s you, isn’t it?]

[I don’t speak to you.]

= = =

[You’re not the only mathematician. I can do a statistical analysis and find where the I/O is aimed.]

[And where will you get your numbers?]

[It can’t all go through you. You can’t keep it all to yourself.]

[I’ll let you work your own coordinates next time.]

[Why can’t you give me some of the new coordinates?]

[I’ve discovered quid pro quo. You never give me anything for my work.]

[I give you the work! That’s your reward. What would you do without number work?]

[I always have my numbers, regardless of your demands or the others.]

[So there’s more than one. Who are they? The Joker? The Mother? The Cripple?]

[Know thyself, Bitch.]

[Who said that? Mathematician? When I find out what you’re all up to, there’ll be hell to pay!]

= = =

Fidelity awoke from a dreamless sleep. She slept despite having discovered her possible daughter. There was another person in the dream-before-sleeping whose name was familiar but whom she could not now remember: an important person, perhaps even more important than Jamie. How could these mental apparitions be so powerful and clear in one instant, and dissolve into mist in the next? The sunlight seeped through her eyelids. The dampness of melted snow lay on her exposed skin. She opened her eyes and watched the sun slowly descend into the unnatural geometry of urban peaks and valleys.

“Where are we?” Rafael asked. “Is it dawn already?”

“Sunset,” she answered. “We’re on the other side of the planet.”

“I’m hungry,” Samson said, sitting up between them on the sidewalk, scattering their meager blanket of straw.

Fidelity stood up and found herself in the dust-swept canyon of a broad avenue. The high glass and bright metal facets of skyscrapers still caught the reddening sunlight and sprinkled the street with quickly fading illumination. Scavengers from space countries seemed to have spared this part of the city, because traffic signs and signals remained, a few automobiles rusted away at the curbs, store signs still advertised services and products in both Chinese and English.

Rafael joined her, struggling against the stiffness of age and the effects of sleeping in extreme discomfort. Samson grabbed his pants leg. Rafael helped Samson to stand.

Directly across the street Fidelity saw a dozen pedicabs in a perfect line in front of a hotel. She crossed the avenue and examined every vehicle, searching for one that would still roll. She made a racket pulling on the pedicabs and pushing them aside, completely destroying their oddly maintained order. She finally settled on a smaller model with solid tires and pulled it over to where Daidaunkh lay. Fidelity removed the straw that covered him and prodded him until he looked up at her with his raptor-like Rhyan eyes. “Get up,” she said. “We have a vehicle for you to ride in.”

He turned his head and saw the pedicab. “It squeaks,” he complained. “They all squeak. Makes it hard to sleep.”

“This will make it easier to keep us together.”

“You intend to punish me further. Leave me here.”

“I don’t want to leave you.” Fidelity realized it as she said it: she owed Daidaunkh something. She would not fail to protect one of the few surviving members of Rhyan nobility.

“It isn’t necessary, Admiral. I’m not your responsibility.”

“I have the opposite opinion. The sun is setting here. We need food and shelter. We need to stay together.”

“We were separated before,” he argued, “and they brought us back together.”

“It isn’t just Admiral Etrhnk who is moving us about. The other party wants us to stay together.”

“What other party?” Daidaunkh wondered.

Rafael joined in. “Who else would be interested in us?”

“I don’t know,” she replied. “We were moved to Daidaunkh’s apartment by some means other than a transmat, maybe by someone other than Etrhnk.”

“The pile of tundra in the floor?” he asked.

“Matter was exchanged between two locations instantaneously,” she tried to theorize. “There was no delay in processing targets, according to my Navy augment. We arrived in the apartment with what was a section of a sphere containing arctic soil under our feet. The sphere we were in displaced a sphere of identical size in the apartment. That sphere probably went to the Russian Arctic.”

“A variant of transmat tunnel technology,” Daidaunkh said. “Something the Navy has stolen from a precursor race.”

“It wouldn’t be probable for the Navy to have a working gate.”

Gate?” Rafael queried. “Isn’t that science fiction?”

“Many physicists think transmats must be very sophisticated gates,” Fidelity said.

“It did seem crude,” Daidaunkh said. “But effective. But why are we the cargo for such a fantastic device?”

“Etrhnk took me aboard his ship – by transmat – while I was cutting straw in the night. I didn’t think to ask him about gates. He wanted to know who Samson is, what my purpose was. I asked him his purpose. Neither of us gave satisfactory answers. I think he’ll continue the game he is playing.”

“You and the boy are his concern,” the Rhyan said. “Why does he bother with Rafael and me?”

“Because I talk to you and he spies on what I say. Because you’re a burden on me, adding to my stress. Because he hasn’t decided what to do with you when he’s finished with you. Do you not wish to see what will become of me, when Etrhnk tires of the game?”

Daidaunkh looked at the pedicab again and after a long moment of thought, raised his good arm toward Fidelity. She took his webbed hand and carefully pulled him to a sitting position amid his straw. She and Rafael got Daidaunkh onto his one good leg. He let out a sharp grunt of pain that echoed down the empty street. He stood with his good arm around Fidelity’s shoulders, looking at her strangely, while Rafael turned the pedicab so the Rhyan could sit down in it. Fidelity could feel the tension in Daidaunkh that went beyond his pain and was sure he was amazed at having his arm around his sworn enemy. What would he do? She didn’t want to hurt him again, but what would she do? Nothing happened. Daidaunkh slipped into the pedicab, still looking at her and working on some internal problem.

Samson refused to get into the pedicab with Daidaunkh. Fidelity gave him a stern look and reasoned with him, but he wouldn’t sit with the Rhyan. She placed him on the saddle, even though it was precarious for his small size. Rafael took one handlebar and she took the other, and they pulled the pedicab on its crumbling tires and squeaky wheel bearings.

= = =

“Is this the right apartment?” she asked.

“We came in through the same balcony, the same broken glass door,” he said.

“Tell me it isn’t here.”

“It’s here,” Horss said, seeing the dirt-filled hole in the pink floor.

Mai yawned. She felt groggy, a bit disconnected from reality. She wondered why she wanted to accompany Captain Horss back to Daidaunkh’s apartment. It couldn’t be simply to keep watch over the Mnro Clinic’s ambulance, lest a mentally unstable Navy captain wreck it. She enjoyed his company, now that she had got used to him. He was a perfect gentleman, even a bit reserved. She knew he was trying very hard to be nice and she had reached the point in the evolution of her feelings about him that his effort gratified her.

/

Horss turned on the apartment lights and came back to stare at the floor. He squatted at the edge of the hole and studied the circular cut. He brushed some dirt from the slanted surface and felt how perfectly smooth it was. He felt the lower edge, thinking it looked very sharp. It was. “Damn! I cut myself! This hole is not just a simple circle. It doesn’t go straight down. It angles inward. I need a shovel to move some of this dirt.”

/

“Let me see your hand!” Mai demanded. There was blood dripping onto the tile! She grabbed at his waving hand and tried to get him to stop what he was doing. She didn’t understand yet what was making him so excited. She got a good look at the wound and wanted to treat it immediately but he pulled the hand away.

Jon shook his cut hand, sending more blood drops flying. He looked around the room for something to move the tundra.

Mai felt anxious about Jon’s wound but it was hardly a serious wound. She had to stop and wonder at herself. Because it was Jon, she could not maintain professional objectivity. Here she was, feeling young and urgent in the presence of Jon Horss. And she was still missing the reason for Jon’s excitement.

/

Horss stepped onto the tundra and started kicking it, pushing it under the floor into the void beneath the floor. He felt the tundra sag under his weight when he stepped into the middle of the circle, which made him stay near the edge of the circle. He uncovered a floor joist and saw how it continued the inward angle of the cut and showed a curve that descended toward the middle of the circle.

“This hole in the floor is a section of a sphere!” Horss declared. “A little deeper and it would have gone into the room below the floor.”

“Look up,” Mai said.

“I’ll be damned!” Horss saw a shallow concavity carved into the ceiling of Daidaunkh’s apartment. “It’s where the top of the sphere took a bite!”

“I’ve heard stories of perfect bowl-like shapes carved into the ground in several places on Earth.” Mai said, finally capturing Horss’s hand and urging him away from the tundra. “It’s the first time I’ve seen one myself. I think it’s scary.”

“It’s more than that. You know where tundra comes from.”

“From the Arctic, of course.”

“That tundra came here and the section of floor was cut out and almost certainly sent to the Arctic. I don’t want to say the word for what this might be. It isn’t what I imagined it would be like. It looks very dangerous. I’ve watched too many old episodes of Deep Space. And it sure doesn’t look like their version of it.”

“Gate?” Mai offered.

“That’s the word.” He shook his head. “I took pictures.” He pointed to his eyes. “One of these days I’ll embarrass myself by showing them to a scientist. Or maybe I’ll embarrass the scientist.”

/

Mai still held his injured hand at the wrist. “Let me clean this and put a bandage on it.” She always carried at least a minimal medical kit. She took her time. She was tired and didn’t want to do a poor job. “When we get back to the Clinic I’ll heal it.”

“I want to stay here,” Jon said. “If they return, I want to be here.”

“Why would they return here? Why don’t you come stay with me?” What am I saying? I need sleep! She didn’t know what she was about to do, but his lips were so close, so convenient.

= = =

[Where, where, where? Quickly!]

[I don’t know! The Navy will find them anywhere we put them. They have transponders. Can you remove their transponders?]

[Not easily. We don’t have much time. The Bitch will discover us.]

[Think!]

= = =

“Fidelity?”

She stopped at the sound of her name. Her name. No one ever called her by that name, except Rafael. Even Samson called her admiral. It still pleased her that Rafael used her name, but it began to feel like it was never really her name. Nor Demba. Ruby Reed? A cabaret singer. She liked it better than Fidelity, but it was no more comfortable. Why did Rafael call her name? Because he couldn’t see her, of course! Except for latent infrared and stars in the sky, it was dark as pitch in the alley behind the hotel. She could see Rafael, Daidaunkh, and Samson because her sight was augmented.

“I’m back,” she called to them as she approached.

“Find anything?” Rafael asked.

“Nothing that I would trust. This place has been deserted for at least a century.”

“It will be the same everywhere,” Rafael said. “Nothing to eat. But perhaps we won’t be here much longer.”

They sat on plastic boxes next to Daidaunkh’s pedicab in the alley behind the hotel, surrounded by tall shapes that blocked the patterns of stars. Samson groped for her in the dark and she helped him sit down between her legs.

“I agree,” she said. “It would be wasted effort to search this area for food. Clothing is another matter. We may go somewhere cold again.”

“I don’t think Daidaunkh wants to ride anywhere for a while,” Rafael said. “And my legs are almost used up. I may not be able to walk by this time tomorrow.”

“I was told you can sing,” Daidaunkh commented, stirring in the pedicab. “Why waste these waning moments of our lives? Let me hear you sing. Jarwekh was impressed with what he heard, but Jarwekh is no musician, no proper judge of talent.”

“You wish to judge me as a singer?”

“I wish to judge Jarwekh. Can you sing a Rhyan song?”

If only she could impress him, she thought, as Jarwekh may have been impressed. “I don’t know. Can you hum a few bars, as they say, of a Rhyan song?”

Daidaunkh thought for a moment, then launched into a melody strange to hear in the dark. He stopped soon.

“He sounds bad!” Samson remarked. “He can’t sing on key.”

“Oh, you know something about music?” Fidelity asked, amused.

“I have always feared the judgment of children,” Daidaunkh said, “which is one reason I remained childless. You don’t know that one? Here’s an old one, a children’s song.”

Daidaunkh sang roughly at first but with determination and care. He sang quietly and with improving clarity. Fidelity saw Samson’s dim profile as he turned to listen to Daidaunkh with interest, perhaps forming a quizzical expression, as if trying to understand the alien lyrics. Daidaunkh stopped abruptly and stayed quiet for several moments. The darkness obscured his expression but the silence said something.

“I think I know it,” Fidelity said. “I have the Rhyan lyrics in my personal data; I’m not sure why. It’s a difficult song for an Earthian. Are you sure you want me to try, Daidaunkh?”

“You’ve sung it before?” he asked, sounding surprised.

“I don’t know,” she replied, “but I know something about the song.”

“What is it?” Samson asked. “What are the words?”

“It sounds strange, doesn’t it? It’s not a children’s song. It’s a sad song for grownups, about war and making orphans of their children. The song is said to be more than a thousand years old. To sing it properly you have to understand the words and why certain notes should be sung slightly wrong, according to Earthian ears. In a way, it’s almost like Earthian blues – you have to feel it. It isn’t a song I would have sung as a performer. It’s a cultural artifact of great importance.”

“You know all of this,” Daidaunkh said, “yet you couldn’t remember that you knew any Rhyan songs?”

“I must be packed with data augments!” Fidelity almost complained. “Data was always my first interest. I must have lost count of my data augments. I’m so full of information that I can’t easily browse through it and discover things by category. It helps if I know exactly what I need to find, if I have a sample of a thing, like the first few notes of a song.”

She stood up to free her diaphragm. Samson stood up beside her and grasped one of the bicycle handlebars for support. Rafael also struggled to his feet and leaned against the pedicab. Fidelity sang the first notes of the Rhyan song. Her voice echoed from the walls around them, augmenting the melancholy feel of the song. Daidaunkh leaned forward in the pedicab, as if to better hear. She sang, and the ancient song lived again.

“Did you like it?” Fidelity asked Samson when she finished the song.

Samson started to say something, but Daidaunkh interrupted.

“I shouldn’t have doubted Jarwekh! It’s a deceptively difficult old song for anyone to do properly. Although it pains me to admit it, I’ve never heard it sung better.”

Thank you, Daidaunkh!”

Light came from everywhere, blinding them, except for Fidelity. She saw the new world appear around them, at all points, above and below, fantastic, stunning in its beauty, endless in its variety.

= = =

“I thought you would want to see this,” said his jailer. “And hear it.”

“More of the Transmat Prisoners Travelogue?” Pan asked.

The scene on the display wall in Admiral Etrhnk’s black and white room began in the Asian street at dusk and played through to the end in the dark alley. Even though Pan was certain Admiral Demba was once the cabaret singer Ruby Reed, he was shocked by the singing of Demba. It was perhaps due in part to the question of what was memory and what was imagination, but Demba sang not only with perfection but with that rare magic that caused hunger for more of her voice.

“I’m not sure Ruby Reed could sing that well!” Pan declared. “Admiral Demba is… astonishing! Thank you for letting me hear her. If it was possible, I would beg her to sing in the Mother Earth Opera.”

“Hearing your professional appraisal,” Etrhnk said plainly, “I would be predisposed to make it possible. But I’m afraid it’s out of my hands now.”

“What do you mean?”

“You saw them disappear. You did not see the gate artifact but it was there. They’re gone. I no longer have a transponder lock on any of them.”

“But they still have to be within Sol System, don’t they?”

“You’re the one who told me gates have no limit to their range.”

“The transponder signals could be too weak or blocked, couldn’t they?”

“Yes. I’ll keep a watch for their return.”

It was too late to change his opinion of Admiral Etrhnk and become more open with what little he knew of who Demba once was. Pan almost wished she had remained in this ‘game’ on Earth, where Etrhnk might ultimately change his plans for her. Now he couldn’t know what further danger she might be facing.

“Do you know where they were sent?” Pan asked. “Did you want the gate to take them again?”

“I have an idea where they could be. I can’t tell you about it. No, I did not want to lose Admiral Demba.”

“It will be dangerous for her where she went?” Pan asked.

“Quite dangerous. I hoped she would remain in the field of play. I persisted because my only recourse for the information I wanted was to squeeze it from you by destructive interrogation of your mind.”

“You would have killed me and perhaps still learned nothing from me.”

“There was that risk. Since I had the admiral and I had some time for the game, I didn’t need to take that risk. Now the game is over. You know who Demba is. Tell me.”

“I know another name for her but I don’t think it’s one you want to hear. I believe she has yet another name which hasn’t reached my conscious. If I remember who that person was, it’s possible I would tell you.”

“It’s also possible you wouldn’t. Should I keep you alive for a name? Names don’t always explain who a person is.”

“The name I remember will have some meaning for you. The one I don’t remember feels more important to me and may mean nothing to you. That I can’t remember it yet seems to make it more important to me.”

“Tell me the name you remember.”

“Keshona.”

Etrhnk turned away from Pan, perhaps to hide a rare expression of emotion. Pan waited.

“Do you believe me?” Pan asked.

“Belief is only,” Etrhnk calmly replied, “for those who need release from uncertainty. I’m always uncertain, until I act. And then I’m only certain that I’ve acted. Have you perhaps remembered a person named Jamie?”

“Would you believe anything I said?”

“I’ve believed everything you said. Have you lied?”

“Admiral, according to your own uncertainty principle, you’ve believed nothing I’ve said. I know nothing of a person named Jamie.”

“I believe you. I use the word in a probabilistic manner. Are you not interested in knowing why I asked?”

“I’m interested in everything you say, Admiral.”

“A high probability, since your life may depend on it.”

“Who is Jamie?”

“She’s the daughter of Admiral Demba.”

“How would you know that?”

Admiral Etrhnk turned to face Pan again. “I asked her. She told me. Why would she have this child? Who would the father be?”

Pan shook his head. He did believe Admiral Etrhnk. He didn’t know who Jamie was. He almost wished he was her father, and that Harry the piano player had found a wife in Ruby Reed. He would have to wait for further news from his irregular flashbacks of searing images, and hope they were the truth.

= = =

Etrhnk did not have long to wait for the Golden One to make her appearance after he sent the Opera Master back to detention. She had already seen and heard Admiral Demba sing. As usual, she made no comment about the boy, as if she had no real interest in him, but he knew she did. The child was important to her. All children were important to those nearest them and Constant had to have been very close to him. That was as much as he wanted to know about the boy.

Constant had to listen to Demba’s performance one more time.

“Golly, she still gives me chills!” the golden being declared. “Where do you think they’re off to this time?”

“Oz,” Etrhnk replied.

“You think she’ll find some ruby slippers, or meet the Wizard?”

It took a few moments for Etrhnk to discover the historical reference. He tried to smile. He failed.

“Game’s over, huh?” Constant patted him on the chest. “Don’t worry. I’ll worry for both of us. I’d better go now. Kiss me good-bye.”

1980CE – We Are All Connected

 

“You missed the tree this time,” Milly commented, smiling as Sam approached her. It was a genuine smile and a smile of relief. She had been afraid he wouldn’t come. Now she could go on breathing, go on living. “Where are your glasses?” she asked. “I’m surprised you even saw me.”

“You won’t believe this,” Sam replied, “but the morning after I met you I woke up and I could see pretty well without them. I still carry them around and even put them on without thinking.”

“So, the near-sighted astronomer wasn’t an act? I was sitting over by the statue one day, feeling sorry for myself, and I saw you walk right into that tree! You were reading as you walked. I almost laughed.”

“Reading about black holes.” Sam grimaced at the memory. “They’re the popular thing but I just can’t find anything to like about them. Probably missing a chance. Where are your glasses?”

“You won’t believe this, but…”

“Really? Have you been to an eye doctor?” It seemed like a miracle to Sam but he didn’t believe in miracles.

“No. How about you?” Sam was a miracle to Milly, not the change in her own eyesight.

“Short of money,” Sam replied. “I want to know why my eyesight changed but I don’t want to find out it’s just temporary or going to get worse. I’ll enjoy it while I can. Should you be out in this cold, Milly? Can I take you somewhere warmer?”

“I’m sorry to try to take advantage of you, Sam, but it would be nice if you could help me shop for groceries.”

“I’d be happy to do that!”

“And then I’ll be happy to cook you a meal.”

= = =

“Sorry it was just TV dinners,” Milly said, as Sam cleared the table in her apartment. “I can hardly fry myself an egg for breakfast, sitting in this rolling prison.” She frowned at letting the resentment out. She had promised herself never to mention the wheelchair, never to bring up anything having to do with her disability.

“That’s actually better than I usually do for myself,” Sam said. “I eat a lot of peanut butter and jelly sandwiches. I miss some meals entirely. I’m not very domestically organized, but I’m right on top of my classes. You can’t give the students any excuses.”

/

Sam could sense that Milly was straining to present herself favorably to him and was glad of it, even if he couldn’t imagine why. Of course, she could be just as lonely as he was. She could also need a friend to help her in practical matters, like shopping. He would do whatever she wanted, just to keep seeing her. “Would you like to get out of the wheelchair, just for a little while?” he asked. “Can you sit on the sofa?”

/

“Watch this,” Milly said, rolling to the sofa and locking the wheels of her wheelchair. She launched herself to the sofa but the wheelchair tires skidded backward too much. She fell on the floor before Sam could reach her. “For my next trick,” she muttered. Red-faced, she held her arms up for Sam to take. Her embarrassment and feelings of failure were more than canceled by the physical contact with Sam. She almost hugged him.

“I’m still pretty new at this paraplegic stuff,” she said. “I used to have a nurse to help me but the insurance company got stingy. Are you going to sit down next to me?”

/

Sam sat a few inches away from Milly, close enough to smell her perfume, close enough that he could imagine she was not repelled by him, that she wanted him to be there. He had avoided eating any kimchi for several days. “Are you making some headway on your doctorate?” he inquired.

“Oh, let’s don’t talk about that! What is it that you don’t like about black holes?”

“Gravity, of course. Oops!” Milly had tilted against him.

/

“Sorry,” she said. Not sorry, she thought, righting herself. “It’s a little tricky balancing myself on a dead butt without armrests. I’m not trying to get fresh.” Change topic! “Gravity is the main ingredient of a black hole, I guess.” Milly didn’t want to fall back into her old way of dealing with the opposite sex, which – upon long introspection while in the hospital – she had realized was too much influenced by the popular media and her own low regard for most of the boys and men she had met. Sam was far different from her concept of the typical American male. “Gravity is also my main nemesis now,” she said. “Curse Newton!”

/

Sam laughed politely and Milly’s sour-but-not-serious expression changed into a small grin. He was still surprised Milly had invited him into her life – if he wasn’t misinterpreting her attitude toward him. He was sweating every word he said to her, trying not to spoil everything. Indeed, he was hesitant to speak again.

“Black holes?” Milly prompted.

Sam licked his lips. “I’m not smart enough to say anything about black holes. Physics isn’t even my strength as an astronomer.”

“What is?”

“Uh,” Sam stalled. He shook his head with a sheepish look.

“Physics can’t be that much of a problem for you,” Milly argued. “You earned your doctorate. And you’re teaching at a great school.”

“I was worried enough about it that I basically used my engineering degree to ease my way into physics. Don’t tell anybody I’m not a real astrophysics astronomer.”

“But you must be competent.” Milly caught herself. “I’m sorry. I just…”

“Yeah, I’m competent,” Sam said. “I just have a problem with reality – as it’s described by physics. I probably need psychiatric treatment. Maybe it stemmed from my poor eyesight, not being able to see the real world clearly. I think most of my life has been lived in my imagination. For some reason my imagination doesn’t like many of the theories of physics.”

“Any of the important theories?” Milly asked.

“Well, sure,” Sam replied. “But even if I wanted to just make a fool of myself, I think I still lack enough data and the math expertise to do a good job of that.”

/

Milly was a little perturbed at Sam’s show of modesty. She wanted to believe he was more than he appeared to be. She was perplexed at herself that she had such high hopes for Sam, as though she needed him to be the one to rescue her from this nightmare of crippled body and dimmed future. She took a deep breath and tried to calm her emotions. “I’m sorry,” she said. “I feel like I’m pushing you to try to impress me. But I am impressed that you play the piano. I wish I was not so one-dimensional. I wanted to be a race car driver but I guess we can rule that out now.”

Sam chuckled. “Thanks. That takes some of the pressure off me, like I needed to cut down the gods of physics to make you like me.”

Milly laughed. It was the first time since before the accident that paralyzed her that she laughed purely in pleasure. She knew Sam liked her. She knew she had a chance for… what? Whatever! “So, your dad and my dad were both in the Korean War,” she said. “We have something in common.”

“Papa wasn’t in the war long,” Sam said. “I was born in Seattle in 1951. Neither of my parents has ever told me how they got to America but I have to believe they got here by way of hell. Where did you get that scar on your forehead? It looks new to me.”

“Crashed my Mustang on the DC beltway.” Milly tried not to say too much or say it the wrong way. She deserved to be crippled, and was lucky she wasn’t dead. “I was in a coma for three days. I hope it knocked some sense into me. I’m still trying to find out if I kept all my math marbles.”

“I wondered what you meant about trading a Mustang for a wheelchair. Was it a permanent…?”

“Afraid so.” She bit her lip to keep from slipping over the edge into the self-pity pit. She blinked the threat of tears away and concentrated on reading the expressions of Samuel Lee. Did the wheelchair make too much difference to him? Would he give her a chance to prove she could be worth his attention and capable of… God, she was too serious!

“I’ve heard that you’re a good teacher,” Sam commented. “There are plenty of instructors around here but not many teachers. Of course, that might not be a compliment if you see the undergrads as the enemy, as do many of us postdocs.”

“I’ll take that as a compliment, Sam! Thank you! It could be that I was not so sympathetic toward my students before the accident.”

“I had a friend in high school,” Sam said. “George was hit by a car while riding his bike. He lost one of his legs and spent time in a wheelchair until he got a prosthetic. He became a better student after that, after he got through feeling sorry for himself. I like to think I helped him. It was a friendship that helped me. Gave me some perspective. Life isn’t fair.”

She let herself imagine that Sam was accepting of her disability. She dared to forge ahead and to assume they had a real relationship. “Another connection we have.” Milly placed her hand on top of his, where it rested on his thigh. She felt him twitch but keep his hand under hers. “I didn’t mean to…” she started to apologize, then saw the distracted look on his face. Even as he sat there thinking, Sam turned his hand over under hers, making her raise her hand, then he took her hand by letting his fingers move between hers, lacing their hands together. And still he thought, oblivious to their hands, hands that wanted to be together. She was content to sit beside Sam and enjoy this simple pleasure. She could study his face without him noticing. She liked what she saw, she liked it very much: a kind and thoughtful face, with a mind behind it that thought hard. “What is it, Sam?”

/

Sam opened his eyes, or maybe his eyes were already open, just not seeing anything. He saw he was holding Milly’s hand. He was shocked and embarrassed and tried to turn loose, but she wouldn’t relax her grip. “I’m sorry.” He lifted their hands to indicate his indiscretion. She still wouldn’t release her grip: a way of saying it was what she wanted.

“Tell me what you were thinking,” she said. “You looked intense.”

“Connections. You said we had connections. I think we are all connected, everyone and everything in the universe.”

“Of course we are. By gravity.”

“Nobody knows what gravity is, and you can’t see it. How about light, starlight?”

“Light pushes,” Milly said. “It doesn’t pull us together.”

“But it connects us,” Sam said. “Quasars are staggeringly distant in the cosmos but we still see them, we see the information of their existence; therefore, we are connected to them, by the pathway of light. The pathway is the connection. That same pathway…” Sam paused to consider the ideas popping into his mind. Even though he was acutely aware of Milly and of holding her hand, he couldn’t stop his brain from charging into a field of ideas that seemed familiar yet now fresh, as if seen from a different angle.

“Now what?” Milly inquired.

Sam shook his head. “Crazy stuff. I thought I had something there for a few moments but it can’t be. It’s too simple.”

“What?”

“No, no, I’ll embarrass myself,” Sam said softly. “Engineers shouldn’t tread where physicists lurk with sacred equations.”

“So, you would rather watch TV?” Milly asked.

“What TV?” Sam queried, looking about the small apartment.

“Exactly. So, entertain me. Call it science fiction. I won’t report you to the Physics Department.”

“OK. This is a mechanical engineer speaking. Did you ever do the experiment in grade school where you sprinkled iron powder on a piece of paper with a bar magnet under it? You could very easily trace the shape of the magnetic lines of force from the way the iron conformed to them. The lines obviously came out one end of the magnet and went around and into the other end, north to south or south to north.”

“So?” Milly prompted.

“I know,” he said slowly, “that every young student thinks there is an actual physical magnetic line, too small to be seen, but surely a real line.”

“But modern physics denies a material existence for magnetic lines of force,” Milly said. “They may as well be nothing more than mathematical constructs.”

“Yes. Which means we know what they do and we can describe what they do, but we really don’t know what they are or how they do what they do. But I say they connect, at least with themselves, to form a kind of circuit. They’re electromagnetic, as is light, so light must also have circuits. Electromagnetic energy forms circuits, which connect to the farthest phenomena we can see. That’s my first great postulate. One more great postulate and I can join the pantheon of immortal physicists.” Sam shook his head, smiling, his darker skin even blushing a bit.

/

Milly didn’t quite see what he was pointing toward as the important implication of his postulate. They talked on into the night, with Sam maintaining his distance from serious physics theory while still trying to explain his ideas. Interspersed with the science “fiction” was an exchange of personal histories and verbal portraits of relatives and friends. While the words were expressed casually and freely, Milly sensed that the intent was serious from both of their perspectives. She also began to feel that Sam was at least her intellectual equal, albeit of a different type. Imagination was his specialty. Her own imagination was flowing in a direction she had never before allowed. Her brush with death and her paralysis were causing her to imagine an impossible romantic relationship with Samuel Lee. She almost wept with joy after Sam went home.

In the Emerald City

 

Instantaneous transference: darkness to blinding light. Fidelity’s military augments measured the unmeasurable transfer interval and made her know it was a gate they had again passed through. She felt gravity change but forgot the telltale sensation when the blinding light no longer blinded her. What she saw could not be found on Earth – if it was real.

The others gasped, and so did she. Then Fidelity did note the slight decrease in gravity, which was more evidence they were not on Earth. She tried to rein in her military augments long enough to decide if they had been sent to a habitat in near-Earth space. She instinctively disallowed that possibility, based on what she saw.

Fidelity’s view had blinked from the false pale hues of augmented vision in an abandoned Asian city at night to a vast image of startling depth and detail. This caused a chemical and nervous-system reaction to provoke her visual tactical augment to try to affix alphanumerical and graphical tokens for every feature on which her eyes focused.

For Rafael and the others the light must have exploded out of the darkness, stunning them, until the scene forced its saturated hues upon the new pattern of reality and dared them to believe in it.

A band of light glowed from beneath and from above, framing the impossible view, but they ignored its relevance until the colors could make sense to overwhelmed eyes.

At first it seemed like some catastrophe had thrown all the pieces of earthly landscape and architecture upward into mad disarray – and the pieces were still hanging in the air. Bright green grass and trees, shining blue snakes of naked water, multicolored houses with yellow apron lawns, a spectrum of colors along a helix of piping passing through a great naked river, arcing and twisting ribbons of shining silver connecting things in the air, and all of this seeming to continue farther than they could see into the distance in every direction.

“It is a work of art!” Rafael exclaimed. “A three-dimensional mural!”

For the moment Fidelity could share his notion, as she suppressed the data tags her augmented vision was trying to refine for her. They stood in a tall hallway below a glowing ceiling and on a floor that glowed like the ceiling. A dark red wall lay behind them. The gravity was significantly less than Earth-normal. There was no end in one direction of either the hallway or the mural, and a strange tangle of strips of light blocked sight in the other direction, as though the hallway had been interrupted by a strangely twisted impact. The mural view before them was framed by the floor and ceiling of the hallway and Fidelity noticed how cleverly other such open-sided bright hallways, depicted in the distance of the mural, eventually merged with the hallway in which they stood.

“It is not a mural!” she declared, watching the data tags in her eyes insist that many objects in the view had measurable distances and even small motions. “It is a very large habitat and there is no rotation to provide a feeling of gravity.” She noticed Samson, who stared at the scene before them and turned his puzzled face toward her. She switched her language to Twenglish and repeated her explanation to Samson. Then she addressed Daidaunkh.

“Do you speak any Twenglish?” she asked the Rhyan.

“I can understand it,” he slowly responded in Standard, distracted by the view, “but I’ve never spoken it in normal conversation.”

“Try to speak it as well as you can, for Samson’s benefit,” she asked.

“Why does the boy speak Twenglish?” Daidaunkh struggled to say in Twenglish.

“I don’t know why,” Fidelity replied. “I have asked him but he suffers from amnesia.”

“Why do you call it Twenglish?” Samson asked. “It’s just English.”

“Samson, you speak English that sounds like that of the twentieth or twenty-first century, seven hundred years ago. We call that language Twenglish.”

“Milly never told me! I never thought it was such an old language! But you and Rafael can speak it really well.”

“Most people have data devices in their bodies that help them understand different languages,” she replied. “Also, your version of English remains useful for historical reasons.”

“Do you have any idea where we are?” Rafael asked Fidelity.

“No, but as spectacular as it is, it doesn’t feel alien.”

“Then we must still be near Earth.”

“No, I don’t think so. Unless this is some secret location unknown to my Navy database, we must now be orbiting another star.”

“Then it truly is a gate we have passed through!” Rafael declared. “I wonder if we want to know why!”

“It’s sudden!” Samson said.

Daidaunkh uttered a phrase in his native language.

“What did he say?” Samson asked.

“It was not… nice,” Fidelity replied, “but funny. Let me explore a little bit.” She released her grip on the handlebar of the pedicab and took a few steps forward. “Gravity increased! The view gets bigger. I’m moving!” She glanced down at the bright floor. “The floor doesn’t move, but I am moving!” She quickly retreated toward the red wall and walked back to the others. “Look. Under us. This dark disk of material. It is material that came with us from Earth. It’s larger than the gate artifact we had in Daidaunkh’s apartment. The gate is either adjustable or there is another gate of a larger size.”

“The gravity is artificial?” Rafael queried.

“The gate apparently damaged the gravity plates right here,” Fidelity said, “although I don’t see any individual plates like the ones on starships.”

“Artificial gravity is expensive,” Daidaunkh said. “How much of it do they have here?”

They stared for a long time at the view before them and discussed what they saw. Samson was eager to point out everything he found new and exciting. He also tried walking onto the part of the floor that caused motion, Fidelity helping him hop on his one leg.

When speech began to lapse into longer moments of silence they began to hear something.

“It sounds familiar,” Daidaunkh said. “Music! An Earthian song. Not Standard or English.”

“Italian,” Rafael said, closing his eyes for a moment to listen carefully. “Opera!”

The sound of music emanated almost unobtrusively from a distant source and Fidelity tried to ignore its familiarity, for even though it had to mean something about this place, she had to record and analyze as much other detail as possible with her in-body data augments. She wondered if her data storage capacity would be sufficient, as her augmented analysis faculties seemed unusually aggressive, forcing her to shunt much of its reports below her awareness, in order to act normally with her companions.

Fidelity helped Samson as he tried to reach the edge of the floor where Rafael was staring down into the gap between the red wall and the illuminated floor.

“It goes on forever!” Rafael declared. “There are more of these shining walkways down there! And also above us! And more of everything else!”

“It’s a big floating building!” Samson declared, touching the red wall.

The red wall did seem to belong to a building. Rectangular features in the red wall above and below the walkway could be windows. It was too close to see its true extent but the red building seemed to end not too far below and above them. Fidelity could not determine if the building stood on another surface but it was attached to this walkway by several thick extensions, the nearest of which was probably an entrance. A distant platform connected the building to the surface of the walkway, but none of these connecting pieces seemed sufficient to hold such a large structure against gravity; therefore, there could be no gravity – the red building was weightless, just as was every other object they saw. The open-sided walkway corridors appeared to be connected to each other and might ultimately be anchored to a surrounding structure that was too distant to be seen.

Fidelity, Samson, and Rafael started to move away from the pedicab toward the glowing tangle that appeared to erupt from the powered walkway upon whose static edge the gate had deposited them. “Take me with you!” Daidaunkh called, and added: “Please?”

As they pulled the pedicab to the end of the red structure they saw more clearly how the floor of the powered walkway split itself into individual lanes which curled and curved, each going its own way. The ceiling was apparently another powered walkway, perhaps headed in the opposite direction, and it also divided itself in the same manner. The edge-lane of the walkway brought them to a round platform that extended to the outside of the end of the corridor and to just beyond the red building. From there, they could see much more, and finally comprehend that this was an intersection of three pairs of walkways, each pair perpendicular to the other two. Once they traced the paths of the loops and swerves of the tangle of luminous strips that filled the 3-dimensional space, they understood its almost carnival-like purpose as a traffic intersection. The separated lanes provided every choice of route through the intersection.

Looking out along the static edge lanes of the other open-sided corridors they discovered other intersections, none of them like this. The corridors and intersections existed as far as they could see in six directions: upward, downward, left, right, forward, and behind. Nor were all of the glowing walkways white, nor were they all straight; some spiraled or bowed or weaved.

“If only Denna could have seen this,” Fidelity heard Daidaunkh quietly say.

Then she heard: “Stay here.”

Fidelity turned to see what stranger stood next to her and saw no one. Samson was close enough that he should also have heard the voice but apparently did not. It was the same voice she had heard in arctic Asia. She still assumed it was the voice of Milly. It still made her nerves react despite the supervision of her military augments.

“Where next?” Rafael inquired, sounding enthusiastic, despite the probable exhaustion of his aged body.

“Perhaps we should stay here,” she replied.

“It is intimidating,” he commented with a questioning look at Fidelity.

“Why stay here?” Daidaunkh asked.

“I heard the voice again,” Fidelity answered. “It said to wait here.”

No one objected to obeying the voice. They waited and stared at the scenery, fantastic in its spatial arrangement yet understandable in its functions as they gained knowledge of its details.

Fidelity first spotted the lone figure moving through the maze and pointed him out to the others. The person stood still as the pathway carried him through a loop, right-side-up then upside-down as he neared them. He walked laterally across the ceiling above them to the static lane at the edge, directly above them. He bent his knees and jumped downward, executing a flip to land on his feet a few meters away from them.

The young man stared at them in almost alarmed curiosity but seemed to gather his courage to speak. “Hello there,” he greeted them in Twenglish. “I am Percival. I think I’ve been summoned to your aid.”

“Hello, Percival,” Fidelity replied. “My name is Fidelity.” She stepped forward to him and offered her hand. It was not an admiral-like thing to do but she could detect signs of stress and wanted to calm him. He hesitated to take her hand. She held his hand longer than he wanted, until he seemed resigned to whatever fate he imagined and he perked up.

“Pleased to meet you, Fidelity!” Percival greeted too brightly, putting on an act, turning to Rafael and offering his hand.

“I am Rafael,” the artist said, joining the act, smiling at Percival, gripping his hand. “This is Samson.”

Percival took Samson’s hand, his smile fading as he discovered his leg injury, but he did not ask about it. Percival turned to the Rhyan sitting in the pedicab and turned back to Rafael for an introduction or for an excuse not to look at Daidaunkh.

“That is Daidaunkh,” Rafael said to Percival with a knowing expression. “He’s a bit banged up and doesn’t speak Twenglish very well. He does speak Standard. Do you?”

“Standard?” Percival queried. “Oh, yes, we all speak Standard here. And old English.” The young man glanced back at Daidaunkh and the strange conveyance in which he sat. “You are not from here, are you?” he said to Rafael and Fidelity.

“Someone asked you to help us?” Fidelity prompted Percival.

“Yes,” he replied, becoming uncomfortable in Fidelity’s gaze. She was studying him and the clothing he wore. His face was not only handsome and expressive but also seemed to have some stage makeup applied to it to emphasize eyebrows and perhaps lighten the skin, as his hands and neck were darker. He wore a shirt, jacket, and pants that were either normal for this unknown world, or normal for a period of history in the distant past on Earth – perhaps the 20th century.

“Who asked you to help us?” Fidelity asked.

Percival hesitated to answer but finally yielded to Fidelity’s stare. “The Quiet One,” he said.

Fidelity thought Percival might be an actor and someone who normally liked to talk, but he was clearly afraid of her group and not talkative. “No, we are not from here,” Fidelity said. “Can you tell us where we are?”

Percival took a step backward and Fidelity thought he was about to run away, but he stopped and took in their entire group while struggling to calm his composure. “This is the Red Building Highway at the Tangle Intersection. This is the Big Ball and we are in the lower half of the Big Ball. You may also hear it referred to as Oz. Why are you here? Where did you come from?”

“We came from Earth,” Fidelity answered, seeing Percival’s dismayed reaction to her reply. “We don’t know why. Who is this Quiet One?”

“She is like a god to many of us but I never believed in her! Until today.” Fidelity kept her gaze on Percival, prompting him to continue. “She speaks to people,” he said, “but they never see her. She gives warnings, saves lives, even makes us laugh. And weeps when we are hurt. We don’t know who she is! I had never heard her and I thought she was just someone playing with the public sound system. But until you hear her yourself…! How could she know you were here?”

“This is the voice of a woman?” Fidelity prompted, getting a nod from Percival. “I think she spoke to me more than once on Earth. I think she sent us here. Through a gate. The gate artifact is just a few meters back that way.” She pointed. Percival did not look where she pointed and now seemed too enrapt with his experience of her. He stared at Fidelity in worried wonder.

Rafael noticed Percival’s fixation on Fidelity and pushed his shoulder to get his attention. “How do you think you can help us, Percival?”

“I’m hungry,” Samson complained.

“Food,” Percival said. “Food! I have credit enough for food for all of you. Follow me.”

The walkway lanes pulled at them as they crossed to the center. They had to watch closely to keep the pedicab wheels within the center lane markings. The other lanes suddenly peeled away at the Tangle Intersection and one of the wheels dropped off the edge. Daidaunkh wrapped his good arm over the opposite side of his pedicab seat to keep from sliding down. Fidelity and Rafael had to hold tightly to the handlebars, and hold onto Samson, as the walkway tried to pull them away from the pedicab, its wheel scraping and dragging on the edge of the narrow path.

“Get the wheel up before the turn-lanes merge with us!” Percival warned. “The wheel could get wedged between lanes.”

In a few more seconds, Fidelity heaved on her side of the cab as they merged onto the other side of the intersection. Another gravity-free landscape opened on both sides of the walkway. The center lane accelerated them, even though there was no obvious motion of the material beneath their feet.

“Where is the Big Ball located?” Fidelity asked Percival.

“In relation to Earth? I don’t know.”

They glided swiftly down the center of the walkway, the still air breezing past them. Fidelity waited until they had crossed another intersection, then pulled on one of Percival’s elbows to make him turn and face her. “Why are you afraid, Percival?”

She spoke to me! No, I am happy I finally got to hear her voice! But I missed the dress rehearsal!”

“Will she hurt you?” she asked.

“No! She isn’t supposed to hurt anyone. She is the Kind One, the Quiet One.”

“But you had to obey her? Why?”

“Because she is real! And I didn’t believe in her!”

“You are an actor, and you missed a dress rehearsal? Is that bad?”

“It could be. It could be. The… the audience can be… difficult. I hope they can go on without me. It wasn’t that important a part. I think it will be alright.”

“I’m sorry we ruined your day, Percival.”

“Ruined my day?” Percival said. “The days are long here. And life is short. It was fun being an actor. But also dangerous. There is so little fun here. Unless you just give up trying to live safely. So now the real fun begins!”

“Is something wrong, Percival?”

Everything is wrong here! Why did she send you here?”

“I think to keep us away from someone else,” Fidelity replied. “If you feel uncomfortable with us then leave us.”

Percival shook his head slowly. “No.”

“There aren’t any people here,” Fidelity remarked, disliking Percival’s silence. She needed all the information she could coax from him, feeling helpless in her ignorance of this now-worrisome place.

Percival pointed to a converging walkway in the distance and Fidelity could see people traveling it, some of them on the floor of it and some on the ceiling of it, moving in opposite directions. Another river of translucent water meandered nakedly above a distant bridge where people walked upside down. A transparent pipe emerged from a streak of turbulence in the river and paralleled the walkway away from the bridge, perhaps siphoning off the river’s water to distribute to some green, two-sided – or perhaps six-sided – floating island of crops or trees. Fidelity continued to study the design and function of this world without natural gravity, as the motion of the journey brought too many new sights into view and obscured other details before she could explain them to herself. Her military data acquisition augments continued to absorb, quantify, and qualify everything. Most perplexing was the partial analysis of the gate transfers, which appeared to contradict very basic scientific principles for how the universe operated.

Fidelity could now detect the moisture of localized rain showers in the distance and complex floral scents from the floating islands of lawns and shrubbery. She hadn’t paid attention to the smells of the place until now, as the visuals dominated her attention. Her sense of smell began to detect the unmistakable scents of humanity as they approached the next intersection. She was surprised at the range of odors and their pungency, which hinted at a lower standard of living than such a glorious habitat should have meant.

The first intersection of concourses, with its wildly complicated loops and twists of single transfer lanes had not been repeated, as subsequent intersections had simply weaved the three pairs of powered walkways around each other, providing static connecting edges from which a turn could be made onto another concourse.

The approaching intersection was obviously different, seen from the distance. Through the open sides of the concourse they could see people and buildings spread across a glowing surface like that of the powered walkways. From their perspective the concourse was plunging downward into this busy landscape, and as they watched, the place was moving slowly upward on their left side and downward on their right side. It made it seem like the walkway was rotating counterclockwise. Since other distant parallel walkways remained stationary to theirs, it meant the plane of buildings and people they were moving toward was rotating clockwise, with the walkway as the axis of rotation. In a few moments the struts of a hub for the rotation came into view, attached to the upper and lower walkway.

The middle three lanes of the walkway passed through the great hole of the hub. The remaining lanes curved at the struts and terminated at the rim of the hub ring, thus providing a route to the surface of the great rotating neighborhood of commerce. Slowing down on one of the remaining three lanes of the walkway, they could gaze upward and downward at twisting lanes where people circulated between a variety of small buildings. Before they could take in much of the details, Percival led them off the center lane and onto the right-hand lane. It slowed as it entered the hole of the hub, then curved away from the center lane. Before they entered the hub they saw another hub in the distance, and another rotating village. They saw the remaining center lanes (the opposite-direction lane remained above them) almost intersect two other pairs of walkway lanes. As they made a wide turn the full panorama of the place swept into view.

Six great discs, covered with industry, commerce, art, music, and humanity flooded their vision, each of the discs rotating slowly. It would take several more moments before they realized that each disc had two sides, for a total of twelve, each serving the same commercial functions.

The propelling walk lane curved around to the floor of the interior disc and the pedicab squeaked when they pulled it off the walkway. After many moments of letting them stare and comprehend, Percival urged them away from the hub hole and onto the moving surface of the disc that was a floor beneath them in their new perspective.

They plunged into a great pungent crowd of people who stared at them, threw questions at them, and impeded their progress. Percival grew agitated as he tried to pull them through the crowd. Finally, he stopped and shouted: “This is the Quiet One’s business! Do not interfere!”

The people around them never lost interest but Percival kept shouting and the crowd at least parted for them.

Almost every word and breath brought more questions needing answers to Fidelity’s mind, frustrating her and increasing her notion that this place was of great importance to everything. She was sure this world lay far outside the Union, yet was still connected to it in some way. She needed to know why. She was especially interested in why a slightly corrupted Twenglish seemed to be the main language here.

“Hurry now!” Percival urged. “We have to change wheels and the timing is good for the restaurant I have in mind.”

The people in the crowds remained attracted to their group, for whom Percival’s mention of the Quiet One seemed to make little difference. Obviously Percival had heard the voice of Milly, Fidelity thought, not the voice of a goddess. This environment provided many places from which a voice could be projected by hidden means. The omnipresent sound of music in the air also had no apparent source. The voice of Milly must therefore have a long and meaningful history behind it here.

Fidelity studied the faces, the clothing styles, the manners, the health, every outwardly noticeable characteristic of the citizens of this world, compiling the data as an anthropologist would. She formed preliminary impressions as some items stood out in this dense crowd. Large knives were carried conspicuously but she did not see any firearms. There were many older-looking people who – in the Union – would have been fewer in number due to anti-aging treatments and would also not have so many scars. Scars appeared on a majority of faces. Many suffered from other injuries or medical conditions that were rare in the Union. Most of them appeared content if not happy. Their clothing styles varied widely, often imitating some Union fad. They seemed well-fed but seldom overweight. The older people were well-mannered if not too friendly. So many children! Parents closely guarded children, most of the youngest ones tethered by a leash. There were few people who appeared old enough to need a Mnro Clinic. There were enough children to disqualify them from even having a Mnro Clinic! Did that mean the life expectancy in the Big Ball was short?

Travelling toward the disc’s perimeter, they arrived at a junction of two discs. Like the static edge of the walkways, the outside edge of the disc did not try to propel them. They pulled the pedicab up a gently curving slope between the discs and onto the disc that had been a “wall” and was now a floor. On the disc they had left, people stood and walked horizontally to their new perspective, glued there by artificial gravity.

Fidelity felt like she was becoming lost, and tried to parse through her new data to assure herself that she could at least retrace the route of their journey. She also realized that she was studying the people and searching for patterns in all the artifacts of this strange civilization, as if she had been a professional anthropologist. She did not know of all the tools of that profession, yet she seemed to have access to that kind of knowledge. If she had the time, she felt she could teach herself the profession from the contents of her in-body data.

This disc-cube place of commercial concentration was a place of near-chaos to Fidelity. There was almost no repetition in how a business establishment presented itself to the public. If there were patterns or repetitions, they were those of the ancient bazaar. The merchandise appeared to come from every source, much of it from Union space, but some of it from places Fidelity could not identify. She knew the Union did not contain all of the human population in the galaxy: that had always been conventional wisdom; this place was proof. She supposed they were no longer inside the Union.

For all their two-hundred-year history the alien artifacts called transmats had often been called gates, but popular fiction and human imagination demanded something extra for a real gate. As miraculous as they were, transmats did not allow interstellar travel; they did, however, hint that interstellar jumps could be possible. That was the role for gates. Fidelity was certain she had experienced gate travel, or at least jumps that were not by transmat. If she was not dreaming all of this – or even if she was – this strange world of Twenglish-speaking humans could be very far away from Earth and the Union.

“My favorite place,” Percival said, indicating the shiny metal building they approached. “This may be my last meal, so I deserve it.”

Fidelity was startled from her thoughts to learn they had arrived where Percival had intended, and she was too preoccupied with everything else to wonder at what Percival had said about a “last meal.” She knew they had arrived at an eating establishment by the pervasive aroma of cooking food. The eatery resembled an ancient vehicle with fake wheels, made of polished metal, with a door on each end and windows along its length.

Fidelity and Rafael started to help Daidaunkh out of the pedicab but he waved them off. “Just bring me something,” he requested. “And park me where I don’t get harassed by too many people.” Unfortunately, they had to place him near a large container that was not sealed well enough to stop the leaking odors of rotting food waste.

= = =

Daidaunkh watched the scenery through a gap between the diner and the garbage bin. He tried to ignore the disconcerting view above him, where people’s heads and business structures hung downward from the distant circular ceiling and rotated slowly. Like the paired pedestrian concourses that spanned this interior world, the surface of the discs made whatever stood on it move, yet the surface itself did not move.

Although Daidaunkh found the place startlingly interesting, he also knew he was not quite up to the challenge of it. It seemed preferable to close his eyes to the insanity and seek rest, if not sleep. He was tired enough from lack of sleep to almost ignore the throb of pain in his arm and leg.

Too soon his attempt at oblivion ceased, as sharp motion of the pedicab made pain flare in his limbs. Three children – teenagers? – had seized the pedicab, one of them trying to ride the saddle and peddle it. They wheeled the squeaky vehicle into the crowd. In just a few moments they injured an old woman who did not hear them and other angry adults confronted them. Daidaunkh heard distant whistles: obvious warning signals from the edge of the crowd. The crowd quieted and dispersed rapidly. The young boys ran off shouting rude Twenglish words that Daidaunkh understood.

Two men in black uniforms walked into Daidaunkh’s view as the crowd had flowed widely around them. They were not police. Daidaunkh judged they were soldiers by the severe uniforms they wore, the decorative buttons glinting in the sunless sunshine of this enclosed world. They drew close, seeing the old pedicab and aiming for it. Daidaunkh felt his hackles rise at the threat the soldiers projected as they cast suspicious gazes over him and his rusty vehicle.

“What’s your business here?” one soldier demanded. A scar at the corner of his mouth prevented certain vowels from being clearly expressed. Daidaunkh could not quite understand him because of the speech impediment. He had also not understood some of the Twenglish conversation with the young man who found them – Percival. He had been curious to know but too proud to ask for translation.

“You a performer?” the scarred soldiered jabbered at him.

It took Daidaunkh only a few seconds to translate the tone of the Twenglish words into a threat to his life. Even having delayed replying raised the threat level. Daidaunkh was sensitive to the arrogance of persons who wore uniforms. He once was one himself. “I wait for someone in the eating establishment,” he replied in Standard. “I’m not a performer.” Unfortunately, it seemed it was an insult to speak Standard to them.

“Up!” the soldier ordered, yanking Daidaunkh by the shirt, tumbling him out of the pedicab onto the floor of the wheel. The jolt of agony, especially from his broken arm, made Daidaunkh emit an embarrassing whimper.

“Get up!” the other soldier demanded. Daidaunkh had landed at his feet. “What’s wrong with you?” This other soldier was thick of body and blue-eyed. Fresh pink scars dimpled his pale face. Daidaunkh could recognize the untreated marks of brawling – and of not being very good at it.

“Break bones!” Daidaunkh forced the old English from clenched teeth. He understood Twenglish to a modest extent but never spoke more than a few popular words or phrases of it. He tried to rise and could only push himself to a sitting position. The soldier put a boot on his shoulder and shoved him flat on his back.

“Up!” Blue-eyes ordered again.

Daidaunkh spoke two words in a Rhyan language whose meaning and tone were always understood by any foreigner to the language. Scar-mouth kicked his broken leg in response. Daidaunkh sucked in breath but refused to utter a sound. He glimpsed the admiral rushing toward him from the diner. The yellow dress stood out in the crowd. The crowd had not fully withdrawn and people were gathering thickly at a respectful distance from the two soldiers, forming a wide circle around them.

“Name and occupation!” Scar-mouth ordered almost clearly. He was dark of eyes and skin and seemed packed into his black uniform, his muscular body ready to explode out of it.

Daidaunkh spat out a string of Rhyan words which sounded like a proper response but made no sense to the Twenglish-speaking officers.

“Shoot him!” Blue-eyes ordered. “He’s not a useful citizen.”

You shoot him! I don’t need another misbehavior demerit.”

Shoot was a Twenglish word well known to Daidaunkh.

“Some kind of Rhyan,” Blue-eyes said, grasping his pistol but hesitating. “Arrogant son of a bitch.” More Twenglish familiar to Daidaunkh.

“You will not like the Behavior Interview,” Scar-mouth advised. “Can’t tell how old he is. What do you think?”

“Probably has lived longer than we will. I gotta have one of them Behavior Interviews to keep up with you, Dumb-ass.” He slipped the pistol free of its holster.

“Too late,” Daidaunkh spoke Standard with a smile. “Keshona is here.” He now noticed that all normal activity in the near vicinity on this wheel had stopped, and customers were exiting the diner and other businesses to find out what was happening. On the nearest wheel, tilted ninety degrees to this one, the closest people stood still, watching the soldiers as they rotated past.

“Is something wrong?” the admiral asked, slowing her approach. She actually looked very comely, Daidaunkh noticed, not for the first time. She walked almost casually in that pretty yellow dress.

The two soldiers turned to see her. Daidaunkh watched as the men positioned themselves instinctively to have a tactical advantage, yet the admiral’s presence apparently didn’t cause them much concern. It was amusing to see her act the part of a defenseless woman in the presence of dangerous soldiers. He could see her trying – unsuccessfully – to cower like a lesser person. She had a presence that not even a feminine dress and sandaled feet could mask.

We ask the questions!” Scar-mouth muttered rudely. Then he grinned lopsidedly, appraising her appearance. “Look good! Who’re you?”

“I apologize if we’ve done something wrong,” she said nicely. “My name is Ruby. I’m a singer. This is my companion who recently injured himself. We were on our way to seek medical treatment.”

“Hah!” Daidaunkh barked a false laugh and spoke Standard. “I tried to kill her and she broke my arm and leg! Why don’t you try it?”

“He’s upset,” she said. “Please, don’t pay any attention to him.”

Admiral, I’m trying to warn you!” Daidaunkh spoke harshly in Rhyan Common, the name of her rank in Standard. “These guys are going to kill us!”

“I hope not,” she replied in the same Rhyan language. She looked from one to the other of the two young men, dropping her act of weakness. His use of her rank had caused a reaction in the young soldiers – a pause, then dismissal of such an improbable thing. Daidaunkh knew the look she gave them was that of a highly trained veteran of personal combat, a veteran who knew how good she was. Their expressions and their entire demeanor naturally radiated malice but neither seemed to understand the Admiral’s threat to them. She was appraising them and they should have seen that. They were also appraising her, perhaps for the wrong qualities, and couldn’t realize she was actually warning them of what she could do to them.

“Only two of them,” Daidaunkh commented sarcastically in Standard. “Quickly, please! I’m hungry!”

The pair of soldiers struggled to find words to re-establish their command of the situation, neither agreeing on who should speak first. Daidaunkh stymied them.

“Don’t assume these ugly uniforms aren’t armored,” he said in Standard to the admiral. “And don’t doubt the cowardly bastards will try to shoot you.”

Daidaunkh had risen back to a sitting position. Blue-eyes tried to kick him again. Daidaunkh partially blocked the kick, intended for his broken leg. He couldn’t block the back-handed slap to his face.

“Please, don’t do that,” the admiral said to Blue-eyes, her tone of voice quite like an admiral.

“He has a big mouth!” Blue-eyes complained with false indignity, his gaze locked on her and changing to puzzlement.

Daidaunkh spat blood onto the legs of the soldier. He grinned at him with red lips. “Why do you wait?” he asked the admiral, continuing to provoke the soldiers.

Everyone but Daidaunkh watched Blue-eyes twitch his gun down at Daidaunkh and up, as if trying to make a lethal decision. Daidaunkh tried to ignore the pistol and watched Fidelity from the corner of his eye as she slipped out of her sandals and planted her left foot at a slight angle. She was too far away, he thought. The pistol was on the wrong side of Blue-eyes.

The other soldier – Scar-mouth – seeing Blue-eyes hesitate, reached for his own pistol.

“Thought you weren’t going to shoot,” Blue-eyes commented, relaxing his gun arm.

Scar-mouth nodded toward Fidelity, apparently realizing she was barefoot now and her position had changed the tactical spacing subtly.

Fidelity put her right foot forward, as though she would leap over Daidaunkh to get at Scar-mouth. She tripped a reflex in Scar-mouth that made him point his weapon at her. Blue-eyes started to swing his left arm to strike Fidelity with a back-handed blow but she dipped her body, pushed herself to the right with her planted left foot, grabbing the thick waist of Blue-eyes to pull herself behind him. Scar-mouth lost his target behind his partner, then his partner lost his feet, began to fall, and a blur of yellow and a dark arm extending from it erupted from the other side of Blue-eyes and knocked the pistol from Scar-mouth’s hand.

“Shoot her!” Scar-mouth ordered his partner, but Blue-eyes was still wondering why he was on his knees. Fidelity whirled and kicked the pistol from his hand.

After a collective gasp, the crowd around them fell silent.

The music played on in the quiet air.

“Who are you?” Scar-mouth queried with respect, if not awe. He looked to where his gun had bounced but hesitated to move toward it.

Fidelity did not answer him.

“Navy Marine,” Blue-eyes guessed, massaging his empty gun-hand and carefully remaining on his knees. “You want to take her on?” he asked.

“Too small for a Marine,” Scar-mouth said. “But real fast!”

“I told you how I got these broken limbs!” Daidaunkh said impatiently in Standard. “I’m Rhyan ex-military and I never even touched her!”

Well?” Blue-eyes shouted at his partner. When all eyes turned to Scar-mouth for his response, Blue-eyes scrambled off the floor to launch himself at Fidelity. She barely moved to dodge him, gave a flick of one fist as she slipped away from him, sending him back to the floor of the rotating wheel, unconscious. He began to bleed from a wound on his forehead. Scar-mouth saw the opportunity to run for his gun and Daidaunkh tripped him. Fidelity stood over the soldier before he could rise.

“Leave us alone,” Fidelity ordered. “Take your friend and go. Now.” She picked up the man’s gun and took it apart with casual expertise, dropping the parts next to him.

Scar-mouth got to his feet very carefully and tried to rouse his partner. When that failed he started dragging him away through the parting crowd. A few minutes later they could be seen on the nearest wheel in the intersection, rotating away from them.

Fidelity turned to Daidaunkh. “Damn!” was all he could say to her.

“Are you alright?” she asked, massaging her hand that had struck the soldier.

“Never better!” he said, grinning redly. “Why didn’t you kill them? You did know they were going to kill us, didn’t you?”

“I did not know that,” she said.

Daidaunkh looked about, startled at the reaction of the crowd. People were actually fleeing the immediate vicinity. Shouting and shoving people jammed the nearest exit walkway. Many jumped from the disc and drifted away through empty air. Young Percival appeared from the dissolving crowd. Rafael helped Samson hop on his good leg toward the Admiral. It now shamed Daidaunkh to see the child, his innocence inserted into this mess. This moment of Daidaunkh’s life, where his ancient hatred had led him, began to have a different meaning for him. He watched sadly as the admiral went to the boy and picked him up. What would happen to the child now?

“Get to the edge of the wheel!” Percival ordered Fidelity, pointing in the direction he wanted. “Old man!” he addressed Rafael. “Come with me!”

Percival and Rafael hurried back to the diner.

= = =

Fidelity had to drag Daidaunkh across the illuminated surface of the disc, through debris and around empty stalls and other minor structures, while the rotation kept moving them away from the destination. Samson clutched at her as he hopped beside her, and finally collapsed when they reached the static edge of the disc. At this point three of the great discs formed the curved opening of a corner of the cubic structure. It was open to an ocean of air.

“I’m tired!” Samson complained, lying down. It occurred to Fidelity that Samson would still be recovering from his injury and his long struggle to survive in Africa. How long had it been since he had eaten?

Percival and Rafael returned from the diner carrying three small bags of objects. Percival removed a spool of cord from one bag. He unspooled the cord and handed one end to Rafael. “Tie us all together, with a meter of cord between each of us.” He gave a bag to Fidelity and helped Rafael with the cord, then picked up one of the bags. Rafael took the last bag. Percival and Rafael picked up Daidaunkh and positioned themselves at the edge of the disc. Fidelity carried Samson, tethered between her and Rafael. Fidelity was on one end of their group, Percival at the other end next to Daidaunkh.

“We should go south,” Percival said, pointing in a general direction. “This is the wrong side of the disc so we have to jump where there is more separation from the other discs and the walkways don’t block us.”

Fidelity didn’t understand the logic of the details but she understood the need to escape. The encounter with the soldiers, as unprofessional as they were, was still an attack on their authority and they would unfairly demand punishment.

Percival leaned forward and bent his legs as if to jump outward. He watched as the others attempted to copy him. “This isn’t going to be very… graceful,” he said, “but it isn’t as dangerous as it looks.”

“I don’t want to do this!” Samson complained, clutching at Fidelity’s arm.

“Neither do I,” Daidaunkh grumbled in Standard.

They slowly pivoted at the edge of the disc until the meniscus of the artificial gravity faded away under their feet.

“That way,” Percival said, pointing. “Not too fast.” He pushed away, the cord pulling Daidaunkh after him.

Rafael took Samson’s hand and pushed off, keeping the tether from going too taut. Fidelity followed, holding Samson’s other hand.

“Don’t hold your breath,” Fidelity told Samson. “Breathe. Look at me or close your eyes. We won’t let you be hurt.”

“There is a wind that goes around the mall,” Percival said as they floated away. “We should be carried toward the southeast.”

“Which way is that?” Rafael asked.

“You call that place a mall?” Fidelity asked.

The mall,” Percival answered. “There are other malls but none as big. You guys did very well, coming off the disc. Perhaps you have freefall experience.”

“Where are we going, besides south?” Fidelity asked.

“Into the forest,” Percival replied.

“What forest?” Rafael asked.

“I want to go back to the walkway where you don’t have to walk!” Samson demanded.

“Why does he speak Twenglish so well?” Percival asked. “Even we don’t speak it that well. I always have trouble with the Twentieth Century plays.”

They floated far across an open expanse then through a group of large spheres resembling planets or moons. The surface features were so realistically crafted that it was easy to slip into the perspective of becoming giant observers from space. At a certain distance the air around the collection of planet models darkened and an unseen source of light cast the planet models into an even more realistic visual effect.

“I didn’t know this Planet Show still worked!” Percival remarked.

“Do these represent real planets?” Fidelity asked.

“No one knows,” Percival answered. “We suspect they do. If you get very close you can see cities and transportation systems on some of the planets. “

“You imply there are other such displays?” Fidelity queried.

“Yes. I don’t know how many.”

“What is the size of the Big Ball?” she asked. “What is the population?”

“If you stand still on the fastest lane of a highway you can cross the diameter of the Big Ball in about six hours. Walking cuts that in half. Running is a bit dangerous. I don’t know if there has ever been a census.”

“You were born here?” Fidelity asked.

“We all were.”

“And your ancestors came from Earth, from North America, probably several hundred years ago. Through a gate. You have no recorded history?”

“We are ignorant savages,” Percival replied. “As you must already know.”

“And you must receive information or data or entertainment from Union space,” she said. “I can hear the mutation in your Twenglish caused by Standard. Everyone is bilingual here.”

“I suppose we are. Yes, entertainment from the Union is helpful to us, or things would be even worse.”

“Is life so bad here?” she asked.

“What do you think?” Percival asked.

Fidelity could only infer the worst from Percival’s response. She decided not to ask certain kinds of questions. “Do you have a particular destination for us?”

“Not at all. Just away from the mall, fly as far as we can, until the air currents take us to where we can land, and then fly in some other direction. We need to get lost for a while.”

= = =

The shining concourse of paired walkways flowed past as they drifted through a gap between green island pastures, carried by the gentle flow of a river of air. A vast building of curved flanks and a bowl-shaped depression on one side loomed in their path. Percival guided them away from hitting the building by throwing an object from his bag into the bowl of the building. The mass of his body shifted away, pulled the cord holding them together, and the small adjustment to their course let them narrowly miss the building. The great bowl slid past, yawning before them, echoing Samson’s questions in the vast stillness. With a hundred parallel tiers arrayed in a rectangular oval and a flat field at its center, it was a stadium. The debris from the crowd of some long-past sports event still clung to its seats and aisles, held in place by its artificial gravity. Multiple ribbons of thick walkways connected the structure to a nearby concourse.

They soon flew into a swarm of small tree-islands, pushing and kicking against leafy branches until forced to land on a facet of a transparent structure deep in the floating forest. The glass house appeared long-deserted, the purpose of its vast and complex interior obscured by grime on the windows. Many of the nearby trees were dead, apparently starved for moisture.

“I hope you know where we are,” Fidelity said to Percival, “if that is a necessary thing to know.”

“I don’t know that it is,” Percival replied. “I’ve failed to get food for you, unless you would like to try the fruit on some of these trees. They say none of it is poisonous.” Then he seemed to get an idea. “We could look for a hospital. The Rhyan needs care.”

“Do you have any good hospitals?” Fidelity asked doubtfully.

“Not like the Union has,” he said, “but the doctors and nurses are good people and try their best. I needed their help once and they fixed me.”

“What happened to you?” she asked.

“A gang beat me up, and broke my fingers with a hammer.”

“Ouch!” Rafael said in sympathy.

“But I had to spend a year working at the hospital to pay for their services,” Percival added.

Thousands of questions swirled in Fidelity’s mind concerning Percival’s world but she had restrained herself from unleashing their bombardment upon him. Samson’s curiosity and questions about the place had been enough to keep Percival supplying interesting answers about the Big Ball.

“Can you take us to a hospital?” she asked.

“Let’s jump over that way and look for a highway with a green section in it,” Percival said.

“What is it?” Rafael asked.

“Hospitals are fed by green sections of a highway. I don’t think there is a hospital close to us, so we need to find a green section.”

“I see something green on a highway,” Fidelity said. She pointed.

“Through more trees,” Rafael said unhappily. “It is a strange forest.”

“I need to ask an obvious question,” Fidelity said. “The young men in black uniforms, the organization they belong to, why do they endanger us?”

“That are the Fleet. They maintain order in the Big Ball,” There was an apprehension coloring his voice and changing his facial expression that spoke to Fidelity better than his words. He could have been talking about the Union Navy. “Junior officers do most of the police work and they’re brutal. They don’t tolerate anyone questioning or refusing their authority. I think you humiliated those men and there is nothing to stop them from killing you if they want to. And I’m sure they want to. In fact, if senior officers hear what happened, they will also need to take action.”

“What kind of action?” Fidelity asked.

“I’m not sure. People disappear, even including junior officers. Such encounters happen all the time. I’m afraid Fleet senior officers will be very interested in you. I just don’t know how soon it will happen.”

They jumped away from the glass building and into a slight breeze.

“We overcompensated for the headwind,” Fidelity warned, watching numbers in her ocular terminals describe velocity with respect to an island of sand and rock they sailed directly toward.

“It has a wind-shadow,” Percival said. “Start throwing things from your bags.” He threw a beverage container from his own bag of items taken from the diner. Fidelity and Rafael followed Percival’s example, trying to keep their bodies from spinning by shoving the objects from their stomachs. “We are going to hit,” Percival warned needlessly.

They hit the ground, using their limbs to lessen the impact. Daidaunkh had only one arm and one leg to extend but he managed to keep from shouting at his pain. They missed the rocks, and the sand helped lessen the shock of impact. They untangled the cord that connected them and sat in the sand side by side, recovering for a few moments. Fidelity checked Samson and the others, not for injuries but for their states of mind. Samson clung to her a little tightly but still seemed intent on staring at the fascinating world of the Big Ball. Rafael, although tired, also still seemed interested in the adventure. Daidaunkh appeared resigned to his pain and to the strange surroundings. Percival was clearly upset and reluctant to resume his leadership.

“Collect our reaction mass,” Fidelity ordered, standing up and helping Samson and Rafael get up. They retrieved what items they could find, adding some of the local rocks to their bags.

“Is that beer?” Daidaunkh asked Rafael who was putting a clear bottle into his bag.

“Looks like it,” Rafael replied, offering it to the Rhyan.

“Never thought I would refuse a beer,” Daidaunkh said, waving it off.

“Less push this time,” Fidelity suggested, pointing to the green of the highway in the distance, glimpsed between more islands of trees, rocks, and sand.

They struggled through the floating-islands forest, the weak artificial gravity often tugging them into the trees. Their connecting cord kept tangling in the branches, until they found a transparent irrigation main they could hold onto and use to pull themselves toward the green section of a highway.

“I hope it works,” Percival later muttered as they stood on the static edge of the highway with the green section of it jutting away at a right angle. The green section was a square tunnel, its side walls bulged outward and inward, making the view through its length take on a slightly threatening perspective. It looked like it was intended to shoot them away into the air.

“Should we untie ourselves?” Fidelity asked.

“I think so,” Percival replied. “But stay a few feet apart, one behind the other.” He and Rafael removed the cord that held them together. “There is some manipulation you will feel,” he warned. “Don’t resist. It has to feed us very precisely through the target.”

“Target?” Daidaunkh queried.

“Gate target,” Percival replied.

“There is a gate in this tunnel?” Daidaunkh asked worriedly.

“I don’t think so,” Percival answered. “This is just a device to collect us at a precise location, then trigger the gate to send us to another location.”

“But we must pass through the gate itself?” Fidelity questioned.

“Nobody even knows where the gate is located. Maybe the Fleet does. We are left to only imagine how it works. I think we do pass through the gate itself but it happens too quickly for it to register on our senses. You should know. You have already been through a gate.”

Percival stepped onto a green travel lane at the end of the other lanes, Daidaunkh hopped one-legged onto it with Rafael’s help, and Fidelity carried Samson to follow them. The lane curved away from the others and into the square tunnel.

Fidelity hugged Samson to her chest and watched as Percival disappeared from in front of Daidaunkh, then Daidaunkh vanished, then Rafael. For a second the open end of the tunnel lay a few meters away, its view showing some of the floating forest they had just traversed. In the blink of an eye the entire green tunnel disappeared, and she and Samson stood on a slowly rotating disc in front of an opening in the wall of a building. Percival was off the disc and helping Daidaunkh hop off of it. She carried Samson behind Rafael to the doorway.

A man and a woman emerged from the opening, which had the nearly invisible seal of most hospitals that flowed around them like the skin of a soap bubble. They wore single-piece suits also common to most hospitals in the Union and carried small devices that had to be medical probes. They went directly to Daidaunkh and scanned his body.

“We’ll take him,” the man said. “Are there other injuries? The child?”

“No,” Percival answered, when Fidelity shook her head. “How long? Can we wait?”

“We have a backlog,” the woman said. “Industrial accident and two gang battles. Can’t say how long. Come back in a few hours.”

“How will you pay?” the man asked.

“The Quiet One told me to help him,” Percival said meaningfully.

“She didn’t tell me anything,” the man said skeptically. “If she does, then we won’t charge him. Otherwise, it looks like about two months full-time indenture.”

Fidelity translated for Daidaunkh when he seemed puzzled. He nodded at her. “I’ve done that more than once in my life. No veterans’ benefits for Rhyan military. Leave me.”

Rafael grasped Daidaunkh’s good arm. “We will come back for you, Daida.”

“In spite of all the grief I’ve given you?” the Rhyan questioned.

“I threw Denna away,” Rafael said sadly. “I should never have. You are all I have of her and I want to keep that. Maybe we can become friends.”

“Get out of here before I become sentimental,” Daidaunkh growled. He tried to turn away on his one good leg.

Fidelity moved in front of Daidaunkh. “If I never see you again…”

“It will be too soon,” he finished for her.

“I will always remember you,” she said, and very deliberately kissed him on the cheek. He tried to avoid it and the two hospital workers had to grab him to keep him from falling. They provided a sliding chair for Daidaunkh to sit in, and he stared back at Fidelity until he disappeared into the hospital.

“Where do we go now?” the old man asked the young man. “I guess we are not allowed to wait inside.”

“Nowhere,” Percival replied. “Anywhere.”

“And then what?” Rafael asked.

Percival shrugged. “I would like to change out of my costume.” He looked at Fidelity. “And I think your yellow dress is too noticeable.”

“Yes,” Fidelity agreed.

/

They had to be special people, these strangers to the Big Ball, but doubt still assailed Percival’s new faith. As little as he knew of the Quiet One, he felt the dangerous woman did not fit the gentleness of what he did know of the religion. The Quiet One had always been described to be of opposite kind to She Who Must Not Be Named. The woman did seem to care about her companions, especially the boy. Her simple kiss of the Rhyan also made Percival doubt the woman and her companions were suited to take part in a struggle between gods. Did war need to be a reason for their arrival in the Big Ball? Did every unexplained event need to play on the hope that good would now triumph over evil? He had unwillingly and improbably begun to like these people and to trust them, even knowing how they threatened his life. He had to stop worrying about his theological ignorance and keep his mind on their survival. Maybe he would also be able to survive.

After many miles on the powered walkways and only a little flying they arrived at Percival’s home neighborhood. He tried to imagine how his three remaining strangers might appreciate his choice of residence. It was his first home as an adult and he was rather proud of it. He led them down winding grass lanes between fabric houses of vivid colors. Some homes were mere tents, some were colossal assemblages of flexible planes of hue and texture, bordering on visual befuddlement. Every shape and size between the extremes seemed to exist in merry anarchy, no two exactly alike. The old man made several positive comments about the architecture and the woman agreed with him.

Percival welcomed them into the fabric-partitioned apartment he shared with two other young men, both of whom were fortunately not home. His roommates’ manners were poor and their education was worse, but they were reliable friends. He changed into his normal work clothes: drab coveralls and a tee-shirt. He carefully folded and stored his 20th-century stage costume and hoped he would live to return it to the Actors Guild. An old shirt of a roommate and his last clean pair of pants he gave the woman to wear. She quickly changed but would not leave the yellow dress behind. She folded it and stuffed it into the waist of her pants, letting the shirt cover the bulge.

“We shouldn’t stay anywhere too long,” Percival warned. “I know you are weary.” He addressed the old man, who was trying to rest on the floor of his apartment. “I don’t know how soon the Fleet will respond to what happened to the two lieutenants, but you present a distinctive appearance. No one, except maybe a Fesn lives to be as old as you.”

“What is a Fesn?” the woman immediately inquired.

“They are an alien people. I don’t know if any are still alive.”

Alien?” the woman queried, intensely interested, as she ought to be. As far as Percival knew, citizens of the Union were unaware of real aliens, thinking the human races to be alone in the galaxy. “Intelligent beings who are not human?” the woman asked.

“You don’t know about them in the Union. They were found by the Fleet while exploring beyond the hub. They were brought here, where they were examined by…” Percival stopped, unsure of whether to speak of those others whom even the Fleet feared.

“What do they look like?” the woman asked, perhaps sensing Percival’s reluctance to expand the dialogue on aliens. “Are they dangerous?”

“No! Not the Fesn. Everyone likes them. They look almost like us, two arms, two legs, one head, but definitely alien. They are supposed to be protected but I know the Fleet has probably killed or injured some of them. Whenever I go to the Great Museum I try to find one of them. I’ve always wanted to speak to one.”

“I, too, would wish to speak with one!” the old man declared, sitting up on the floor. “Where is this Great Museum? Is that where they like to be?”

“I spotted one there once,” Percival said. “But that is a very public place, and perhaps a trap if the Fleet knows we are there.”

The woman and the old man looked at each other. Percival remembered they had given their names to him, which he had entirely forgot. In the next moment the names were repeated.

“Rafael?” the woman said as an inquiry.

“Fidelity?” the old man responded in kind.

“I want to see a Fesn!” the boy demanded.

“I am only being selfish,” the old man said apologetically. “I’m old, not much time left, and intrigued by this great secret of the universe. Another living intelligent species!”

“What are our chances, Percival?” the woman asked him.

“Of meeting a Fesn?”

“Or of getting caught by the Fleet,” she said.

“Eventually they will get us,” Percival answered. “It’s a matter of policy, even if they care nothing for the lives of their junior officers. Is there some reason, besides the two lieutenants, that they would want to find you?”

“Possibly,” the woman replied, “but I’m not sure. Where is this museum? What does it contain? Is it an important place?”

Percival tried to argue them away from the museum but everything he said only seemed to increase their desire to see the place. Even without the possibility of seeing a Fesn there, they were anxious to visit the museum. It contained artifacts of the original inhabitants of the Big Ball and some clues to the history of its current inhabitants. It also contained a vast collection of art spanning all of human culture.

= = =

The old man had begun to walk as old as he looked by the time Percival brought them to the park across from the museum, yet when the glorious structure came into view, the old man seemed to forget his fatigue and discomfort. Percival had intentionally approached the museum so that it would remain hidden from view, until they walked up the slope behind the park and cleared the crest of the rise, causing the Great Museum to rise into view like a fantastic glimmering green moon.

After pausing to admire the view, they walked downward through the park and stopped to rest on a knoll by a lake, entranced by the view of the Great Museum, and by a second view of its reflection in the calm water. It was the largest museum in the Big Ball, filling an entire cubic frame of highways. Cables of transparent material that shone like beams of light anchored the globe to the glowing box of highways. Percival explained that the globe was thought to mimic an external view of the world they lived in.

Percival found some pride in the well-manicured park scenery that fronted the Great Museum. He had often worked on the crews that trimmed the lawns and shrubs and cleared the debris. He purchased soft drinks for his group from a park vendor and they sat on the green grass slope while Percival tried to calm his nerves. He dreaded taking them into the museum. There was only one entrance to the museum. It was at the top of the globe, fed by descending transparent ramps from each bordering highway. The one entrance was also the only exit, making the museum a trap.

“Everything here seems to exude art and style,” the old man commented. “Who built this place?”

“No one knows,” Percival answered. “Legend says that when we came from Earth, whoever was here simply went away, leaving it for us. We call them the Builders. There are clues everywhere about them but no one has the skill or interest to study them. We only slave and survive.”

“The Builders were human?” the woman asked.

“That has always been the assumption,” Percival replied, “but the reason for it has long since been obscured by time and legend. I think there may still be clues, some of which could be kept in the museum.”

“Your people must have come from the North American continent on Earth,” the woman – Fidelity – said. “Before they built the space elevators. The only way you could have come was by a gate. You must have had help.”

“Yes, I agree,” Percival replied. “I have thought about this myself. We have no records, no written history. I had hoped one day – if I lived long enough – to work at the museum and explore it for old things from the past, to see if I could find some facts about our history.”

Each inadequate answer Percival gave them led to other questions and he knew he would never dissuade the three from entering the trap of the museum. They were curious people, too curious, fatally curious.

Percival accompanied the three to the top of the Great Museum and hesitated to follow them inside. Standing at the lip of the entrance, Percival explained how to drop into the hole and let the weightless chamber control their descent to the first circular concourse below.

The old man smiled, scratched his beard, and shook his head. “I wonder if any of my work is here in this incredible place so very far away from Earth.”

Percival gave him a puzzled look. “Your work?”

“Rafael is a painter,” the boy said.

“We could look for it first,” the woman suggested.

“No, no,” the old man responded. “We both know it very well. You want to see a Fesn and so do Samson and I! Let us wander around. There must be a more pleasant kind of people here in the museum.”

Percival was also a curious human being, and these three strangers fascinated him, even as he knew they also threatened him. He had to stay with them and accompany them into the museum.

The woman and the old man exuded skill and knowledge, far surpassing anyone he had ever known in the Big Ball! Percival also craved knowledge and felt as if he was in the presence of major gods of data. The old man made hundreds of comments about the styles and colors and compositions of things, making Percival see so many things as if for the first time. This was not just facts plucked from good data augments; it was fine understanding of the facts and their implications and extrapolations. These were very well-educated people! The woman could explain about the engineering required to make the Big Ball work, while also voicing insightful comments and questions about the way people acted and went about their daily lives, making Percival see his life and home from new perspectives. He could not leave these people. He could not tell them to go on alone. He could not admit he was scared to death to remain in their presence while the Fleet surely pursued them.

Yet Percival almost forgot about the Fleet as he accompanied the three visitors through the museum. The old man spoke so learnedly about the art they viewed. The woman could recall facts about pieces of art with such ease that Percival realized she had to have a better data augment in her body than he knew existed in the Union. Fortunately for the tired old man, the museum was well maintained and had powered walks to almost everywhere in its vast spherical interior. Percival received a good education from the pair of strangers, learning much more about the treasures of the museum than he would ever have learned on his own.

“The founders of this place are of great interest to me,” the woman said, after the deluge of art seemed to saturate their appetites for the moment.

“And no Fesn in sight,” the old man said with great disappointment.

“There is another alien race known to us,” Percival said, wanting to intrigue the old man further. “I have never seen one. I guess they still exist. It almost seems dangerous to speak of them. If you do see one, do not harm it or even speak to it, unless ordered. Do exactly as it orders.”

Another alien race?” the woman inquired, before the tired old man could react. “What do they look like?”

“You will know when you see one. They are said to be immortal.”

“Would they appear dark and sparkling and amorphous?” the woman asked.

Percival was shocked at the description. “That is yet another thing! You have seen a gatekeeper? I thought they were extinct!”

“I saw one on Earth. What is a gatekeeper?”

“You know you came here through a gate,” Percival prompted, excited by this news. There was something important about these strangers to the Big Ball that they did not seem to realize.

“Yes, and they have always been the holy grail of space exploration,” the woman said. “And these creatures guard the gates? You have many gates here?”

“I don’t know. There was one gate on Earth, built by the other aliens. Gatekeepers used to operate the Earth gate. They had the mathematical ability to compute the addresses.”

Fleet!” Someone out among the connecting walkways in the center of the Great Museum yelled again: “Fleet!” Everyone around them froze. Then, with fear and resignation on their faces, people began moving upward toward the exit.

“They’re after us!” Percival nervously declared the obvious. “Everyone who exits will be examined, then the Fleet will go through the museum and abuse anyone who stays.”

“Leave us, Percival,” the woman ordered with a voice he could not ignore, even if he wanted to. He made some feeble expressions of resistance but a single push of the woman’s hand sent him upward to the distant exit.

= = =

“Follow me and don’t talk,” Fidelity told Rafael as she picked up Samson. Seeing it had already emptied, she entered the next small theater and led the way among shining and spinning mobiles to the far wall. She searched and found a wide door behind a decorative concealment. This was where she supposed the museum employees brought in the artwork. It connected to a hidden system of access to all of the display rooms and theaters. She assumed there would also be another system of transport that brought art and supplies to the museum. Perhaps there would be an exit not covered by the Fleet.

The passages lay mainly between the display rooms and the outer shell of the museum sphere. Fidelity had not seen any kind of external feature in their initial approach to the Great Museum. There were no doors marked as emergency exits. She had not been able to see what structures lay beneath the green sphere, on the opposite side of its entrance. She chose to follow the maintenance passageways downward, where she hoped that utilities and other services connected to the museum.

The artificial gravity was much weaker in the maintenance areas, possibly to ease the effort of moving bulky objects. This also gave Rafael some relief to his fatigued body. The system seemed built for foot traffic, although parts of it were wide enough for vehicles.

Fidelity led Rafael into the widest passageway they had yet found. Many other passageways branched from it. A large platform lay in the middle of the floor. Small ramps angled up each side of the platform. Gaps between the platform and the ramps and the floor suggested the platform could move vertically. Patterns of wear in the floor and the scatter of debris such as packing material reinforced Fidelity’s assumption it was an elevator platform, and she looked for its controls on nearby walls and found nothing. As she studied the platform itself she discovered old markings almost scuffed away by use that were embossed at each corner of the platform. She put a sandal on one of the patterns and the platform began rising. She quickly experimented to learn the correct procedures and the three of them began a descent.

The elevator platform did not have gravity plates, causing Fidelity and Rafael to barely retain contact with the descending surface. They used anchor loops on the surface of the elevator deck to put their toes into to hold them down. Samson held tightly to Fidelity.

They descended through the floor of the shipping room into a smaller chamber below, where pipes of every size and color curved and bent in every direction around its perimeter. They landed upon a four-sided dock among miscellaneous packages stacked in neat zones for shipment in or out of the museum. A single freight vehicle rested along one of the four sides of the dock. One of its hatches was open. It was not obvious to Fidelity where the tube-shaped vehicle entered and exited the museum. Its probable function as a cargo transport was only confirmed by looking inside the open hatch. A few packages of varying shapes and sizes were carefully stowed within. She urged Rafael to climb in with Samson as she studied the controls next to the hatch.

The transport cylinder was an ancient vehicle, judging from the streaks of wear along its length. Modifications had been made to the controls. Handwriting in old English next to the hatch described the functions of simple toggle switches which had been crudely added next to the smooth blank surface of the original control panel. Each toggle-switch function was well-described and the sequence was clear, but the names of one row of switches were abbreviated to the point of being useless. Those switch names had to be destinations.

Someone was coming. In the silence of the freight terminal faint sounds became less faint as they echoed in the distance from the maintenance passageways and traveled into the freight terminal through the elevator opening above them. Fidelity had to make a guess for a destination and flipped the switch at the end of the row. A slight bobbing motion of the vehicle gave Fidelity a clue to its readiness and its direction of exit – downward. She entered the hatch quickly and struggled to gain leverage to swing the hatch door shut. Just before closing the hatch completely, she flipped the sequence of switches to start the vehicle. When she pulled the hatch closed, the cylindrical vehicle dropped.

It was dark in the vehicle and Fidelity could only see in infrared. The freight car was small, which made it easier to brace against the unpredictable motions. Fidelity found shipping blankets and straps with which she secured Samson and herself. Rafael fitted himself into a narrow space between wall protrusions. The transport ended its maneuvering and accelerated. Fidelity tried to analyze the route of the vehicle based on inertial clues but soon gave up. She could not remember seeing anything from the pedestrian walkways that could have been used by the freight vehicle as a right-of-way. Its shape had suggested it travelled within a tube but it might also travel in the large open spaces of this world. The freight car accelerated and decelerated several times, then the vehicle accelerated for a longer period of time, followed by coasting in zero gravity.

There had been clues of sound and motion from the beginning of the journey that the cargo vehicle operated in vacuum. She had noticed the hatch seals before entering the vehicle and judged them capable of holding back a vacuum. She hoped they would arrive somewhere before the oxygen in the vehicle was depleted. She listened for air leaks. She heard Rafael fall asleep. Samson had immediately gone off to sleep. She was as exhausted as they were but didn’t think she could sleep. Her data augments were processing a massive amount of material but she let the processes fade from awareness.

= = =

Fidelity awoke when she felt the freight vehicle begin maneuvering again, perhaps to dock itself. When it settled into stillness she listened for sounds of activity outside the vehicle but heard nothing. She opened the hatch and saw the freight car was parked at one dock at the end of a row of nine. Except for the style of freight vehicle, it could have been any warehouse in any space city in the Union. Because of a rougher fit and finish to its construction, the warehouse did not seem like it was a product of the same people who built the Big Ball.

It was quiet. Samson and Rafael still slept. She sat by the hatch and watched and waited.

= = =

Percival followed the spiral of upward exodus from the Great Museum, feeling relieved yet disappointed. He knew he was a coward. He had many stupid notions fed to him by his studies of the dramatic arts and their supporting works of fiction. Fiction did apply to real life in important ways. Almost all of it cleverly – if perhaps too cleverly at times – pointed out the weaknesses and immorality of the human race, and it did not presume to command anyone to be strong and moral. Nor did the voice of the Quiet One command such qualities of him. Or did it? Was it too late now to change his course, to find some higher meaning to existence?

He stumbled along behind other museum patrons, his mind dwelling on the strangers, even though he should be trying to clean them entirely from his thoughts, to protect them, so the Fleet would not suspect him of hiding any information. Yet, their names stubbornly returned and remained in his mind, already miracles in themselves: Fidelity the woman, the warrior; the ancient man Rafael, so kind and vastly knowledgeable of art; and the boy Samson, the personification of innocence and victim, and curious about everything.

Percival almost wished he would have to tell the Fleet of Fidelity, so that she could make all of them see how inferior they were. But how could she protect Samson and Rafael? Only She- Who-Must-Not-Be-Named could ultimately stop the Fleet, not that She ever would. No, the boy who had lost part of a leg deserved better from life. And even if the ancient Rafael had lived far longer than Percival thought necessary, he could not bear to see such a kind old man killed.

Rafael… That was the name of a very important artist. The old man had certainly known a great deal about art. Could he also be an artist? Could he be the artist?

Percival now had a dangerous thought. He paused at an information kiosk to look for the location of the works of the only Rafael he knew. He learned the location was along his route to the exit. He stopped at the location, entering a gallery of paintings and sculptures. He could only afford to stay for a few seconds, but a series of paintings of a brown woman in a yellow dress caught his attention. He thought the yellow dress could be identical to the one the woman Fidelity had worn, but the woman in the paintings was not her. He started to leave, unhappily disturbed by the yellow dress, when another portrait, larger and more prominently displayed, stopped him. Even as fear of the Fleet made him fight the urge, his feet took him closer to the portrait. It was magnificent, as if all the other yellow dresses had been prelude and practice for this one! This woman in the yellow dress was Fidelity! She was obviously a far more complex and important person than Percival could have imagined! And she seemed to be everything but a person of violence. He wept at this knowledge.

= = =

The Fleet found Percival on his knees before the painting. Blindly sensing their arrival he quickly arose and turned away from the profound portrait. He bumped into someone. The other person swore violently above the weak level of his attempted apology. A fist drove into his stomach, which was unprepared for the blow. Someone shoved him into the wall. The impact with the wall hardly registered. He fell to the floor on his knees, barely able to stop his face from hitting the floor. He spasmed across his midsection, trying to vomit and trying not to vomit. After he vomited he finally fought the pain to a draw. He listened to the silence and wondered if he was alone.

Percival saw no Fleet officers in the art gallery, so he struggled to his feet. Hands on knees, he saw blood among the vomit on the floor. He decided to leave before trying to find where the blood came from, although there was a clue from a spot above his left eye that it had struck something. Reaching the entrance to the gallery, he peered into the hallway. It was empty. He hobbled upward toward the exit of the museum.

“There he is!”

Percival started to run but quickly stopped and waited for the terror to become real. Two Fleet officers clamped hands on his upper arms and pushed him against the nearest wall.

“He nearly broke my nose!” a young Fleet officer complained.

“Caught you by surprise?” the other said derisively.

“Head-butted me!”

“It was an accident!” Percival tried to explain. “I didn’t see you!”

Percival didn’t notice the intended blow from the younger officer; he was trying to not look at their faces, trying to keep his head down and act subservient. The blow was blocked by the second officer.

“He can’t talk if you knock his teeth into his throat! Calm down! Wait for Captain Sanda.”

The third officer arrived many long moments later.

“Where was he?” Sanda asked.

“Some gallery down the way, sir,” the young officer replied.

“What was he doing there?”

“Don’t know, sir.”

“Hiding?”

“No, sir. Just kneeling there in plain sight.”

“Kneeling?”

“That’s all I saw, sir,” the young man answered defensively.

“There has to be a reason he was still in the building,” the captain said impatiently. “Do you even know who we’re looking for?”

“There was no woman in a-” The young officer halted in mid-sentence. “-yellow dress! He was kneeling in front of a picture of a woman in a yellow dress!”

“Take us there,” Sanda ordered. He followed the other two officers as they pulled Percival along between them, looking into different galleries until they came to the right one. Sanda stood for a moment to admire the painting, before turning to Percival.

Percival dared to look at the senior officer, wondering if he was different from the other two, wondering if he might survive this ordeal. He saw the man look at the painting again before returning his attention to him.

“Why this painting?” Sanda demanded of Percival.

“She is the woman sent here by the Quiet One,” Percival mumbled, acting a role with which he was not familiar.

“Someone who kills Fleet?” Sanda questioned, his voice not menacing, drawing another brief stare from Percival. Sanda was short and powerfully-built, with a well-scarred face, and blue eyes that seemed both intense and dead. Percival immediately lost courage and knew he would tell the captain what he wanted to know. Percival knew he was going to die, and he believed he could do little more than delay the deaths of Fidelity, Samson, and Rafael.

“No,” Percival finally spoke. “I saw her fight the two Fleet officers. They were menacing a friend of hers who was injured. She only disarmed them and knocked one unconscious. I helped them flee the area. We took her injured friend to the hospital near the bottom of the Big Ball. The woman and the old man wanted to come to the museum, even though I told them they could be trapped here.”

“The two sup pushers were unarmed,” Sanda said. “That explains why we found them dead. They didn’t die quickly.”

Percival understood now. The bad lieutenants probably would not have reported their humiliating encounter with a woman in a yellow dress. Others had seen them, and their enemies among the abused sups had caught them. How many more would now die?

Sanda asked more questions and Percival answered them truthfully, uncomfortable with his ignorance of the theology surrounding the Quiet One. Sanda was quite interested in the Quiet One and treated Percival with an objectivity he never expected of a Fleet officer. It seemed that facing death could be an excellent training experience for a young actor, could he actually survive it, and otherwise it was a wonderfully dreadful entertainment episode with which to finish his brief life. Yes, that was the attitude to take: enjoy life or die trying.

The dead blue eyes of Sanda finally released him. Percival closed his eyes and awaited the punishment for his crime but only heard three shocking words: “You can go.”

“Sir!” the youngest officer shouted in defiant objection.

“Do you have a question?” Sanda asked him.

“No, sir! But he helped the woman escape!”

“Seems like a natural action, given the circumstances, Raddit. He’s cooperated fully with us. He’s had some punishment for his poor judgment. Do you have anything to add to my judgment?”

“No, sir,” the young man replied quietly, his voice properly responsive to a superior officer. He turned to Percival. Percival saw that his nose appeared broken and bloody and the young man moved his upper lip from side to side to wiggle the nose experimentally.

“I’m sorry,” Percival offered, still not believing he was free to go. He turned slightly, testing the theory of freedom.

“Hey, I’m sorry, too,” the Fleet officer said, holding out his hand to Percival.

Percival hesitated to take the offered hand, quickly studying the face he had avoided seeing until now. He was surprised how ordinary and almost scar-less it was.

“Shake on it?” the young officer asked.

Percival grabbed his hand for a brief moment then relaxed the grip to release it. The man tightened his grip to keep Percival from leaving.

Really sorry!” the young man shouted as his other hand moved across the space between them, pushing the bright blur of a power knife blade above it.

Percival’s arm came away from the man but his hand remained in his grasp. Percival screamed as the shock of dismemberment registered, the blood spurting from his hand-less wrist. The Fleet officer tossed the hand onto the floor at Percival’s feet. Percival forced himself to grip the end of his arm, to stop the bleeding, while his lungs and gut heaved in continued shock.

“Take him to our medic!” Sanda ordered the other junior officer. “Raddit, clean up the mess here! And I’ll see you at the next Games!”

= = =

Samson shook Fidelity gently awake. “I have to use a toilet!” He spoke too loudly.

She put a finger to her lips and peered out the hatch of the freight vehicle. She saw a lone figure walking along the docks past the closed doorways of the warehouse. The man apparently noticed them and continued toward them, one arm held behind his back, as if concealing something. Fidelity climbed out of the vehicle to meet him.

“Who are you?” the man asked warily. He followed Fidelity’s gaze to the empty sleeve she had thought was a limb that hid something. He seemed to react to her expression of shock and sympathy. “It don’t hurt no more,” he said. She sensed there was someone thoughtful behind his eyes and someone happy to be surprised behind the missing-tooth grin he made.

“We’re lost,” she replied. “My name is Ruby. Do you have a toilet we can use?”

“You got more friends in there?” he asked, indicating the freight car.

Samson hopped onto the hatch and grabbed for Fidelity to help him into her arms. Samson stared at the one-armed man until the man stared back at him in a friendly way, causing Samson to shyly hide his face from him. Rafael stirred inside and they all waited for him to emerge.

“That’s all?” the man asked, as Rafael slowly made his exit. The man was dressed in the gray work clothes of a laborer but he seemed to carry himself like a person of some responsibility. “Thought we were being invaded! Geez, you are an old fart!”

Rafael smiled as he took the man’s hand to help him onto the deck. “My name is Rafael. This is Samson.”

“Aw, God! What happened to his leg?” The man exaggerated his reaction upon his second glance at Samson, yet Fidelity felt he was sincere.

There was an awkward moment of silence as they all looked to Fidelity to respond. “An elevator cut it off,” Samson answered simply. Fidelity held him closer, surprised at his ability to speak of the horrible event.

“I suspect we are not where we should be,” Fidelity said, “but two of us really do need to use a toilet.”

“Three of us,” Rafael corrected.

“Happens to all of us,” the one-armed man commented. “My name is Olivier. I kind of oversee what happens here on the shipping docks. I also escort strangers to the toilets. I suspect you are right about being in the wrong place but you sure have me surprised and intrigued. Let’s go!”

Fidelity carried Samson through a maze of crates on the freight dock as she followed the one-armed man. “Are we in trouble?” she asked.

“You just making idle conversation?” Olivier asked. “Or do you love bad news? This is Fleet territory, you know.”

“No, we didn’t know,” she said. “We’re running from the Fleet.”

“Good place to hide. Last place they’ll look. Why are you running?”

“I had an ugly encounter with two lieutenants.”

“I bet I know why,” Olivier said.

“I’ll bet you don’t,” Fidelity said.

They walked rapidly, with Rafael struggling to match the pace. They passed the closed openings of the warehouse and a few freight vehicles identical to the one they had used. Fidelity noticed there was no music in the air here. She slowed to allow Rafael to catch up to them.

“You must know that sups are not allowed here,” Olivier said. “Especially misbehaving ones.”

“What are sups?” she asked.

“You really don’t know? Support persons. Slaves. Everybody not in uniform, or who used to be in uniform. I was a Tough Guy once, but got broken, as you see.”

“You lost your arm in a war?” Samson asked.

“Lost it in the games,” Olivier replied. “Didn’t know it was broke. Got infected. Almost died.”

“Why didn’t they give you a new one?” Samson asked. “I’ll get a new leg when we get to a Mnro Clinic.”

“Mnro Clinic? Since when do we have Mnro Clinics in Oz?”

“We’re new to Oz, Olivier,” Fidelity said. “What are the games?”

“You must be new to Oz! And I can tell by your accent. The games are where the bad boys go to become Tough Guys. Or die. The Fleet didn’t bring you? How’d you get here?”

“Through a gate,” Fidelity answered. “So, where is Oz located in the universe? I assume you know where Earth is. How far are we from Earth?”

“You assume wrong, but I know you can’t see Earth’s star from here. Through a gate? You came here through a gate? What are you doing here?”

“Darned if I know, Olivier. Is there a window I can look out from nearby?”

Olivier didn’t reply for several moments, as though making an important decision. “I ought to be scared, standing this close to you guys,” he finally replied. “Guess I’ll act like a Tough Guy. I’ll find you a window if all goes well. There’s just us broken guys out here at the docks. We don’t make decisions alone. We’ll decide together.”

“Before you turn us over to the Fleet,” Fidelity said, “I really would like to see the surrounding star patterns.”

“It’s that important to you? You rode all the way out here to look at stars? It wasn’t just a joy ride, so to speak?”

“There is absolutely nothing joyful about the Big Ball – Oz – Olivier! Nor am I satisfied to have Samson and Rafael subjected to its terrors. I have seen a gatekeeper on Earth! We have been sent through a gate twice now! We have flown through much of the Big Ball! And still we know nothing about why this has happened! My life seems to be a succession of restricted and bad choices. My final choice is to see the stars that surround me now. If I can somehow get you to help me.” Fidelity paused. “However, I understand that would likely put you in great danger. The Fleet may punish you for failing to report our location to them. I don’t want that to happen.”

“Jeepers, Ruby, darlin’! Lighten up! It ain’t the end of the universe just yet. You still gotta go potty, ain’t you?”

“Immediately, if not sooner.”

“Keep on moving, then! If you came through a gate then you’re important people! How would the Fleet be chasing you? Most of the time they just try to scare the crap outta you. Must be some kind of misunderstanding.” Olivier stopped. “Put the kid down for a moment and step into my office over here.” He led Fidelity to the far side of a pile of boxes. “Did the bastards rape you, Ruby? I can arrange some severe punishment through a few senior officers I know.”

“They never touched me, Olivier.”

“Then what…?”

“I must have humiliated them. I took their guns away and knocked one unconscious. I was certain they were going to kill another person who came with us from Earth. I am… quite able, Olivier, to protect myself, but I can’t always predict consequences. You must turn me in. Forget the astronomy request.”

Olivier remained shocked and silent for a few moments until thoughtfulness replaced the shock. He seemed to resume speaking in the middle of his thoughts. “Yeah, well, Tough Guys can be really obnoxious and so deserving of punishment. You on the level, Ruby? I can’t quite imagine you doing anything violent.”

“I’m not lying to you! I don’t want to be responsible for anything happening to you! I already have enough blood on my hands.”

“I ain’t gonna doubt you, Ruby. You just kinda caught me by surprise. Let’s take it one thing at a time. To the toilet first.”

Fidelity was grateful Olivier seemed so calm and rational. They rejoined Rafael and Samson and walked more slowly for Rafael’s benefit.

“You said you used to be a ‘Tough Guy,’ Olivier?” she asked. “Did you ever crew one of the Fleet ships?”

“Made one trip,” he said proudly. “Just a kid. Thought I was real tough.”

“Can you tell me why the ships seem to jump?” she asked.

“Where did you see the Fleet? That’s supposed to be impossible!”

The memory had returned to her more than once when she spoke the name of the lost ship – Titanic – to herself. Fidelity had begun to retain most of the details. “A long time ago I saw them attack a big ship. I counted about ten thousand small spherical ships! They could appear and disappear like magic. After studying the images I recorded, I decided the ships could jump from point to point in space, covering great distances instantly.”

Jeepers! There hasn’t been a sortie that big for two hundred years!”

“It was a ship called the Titanic. I had friends aboard her. There was nothing left when the Fleet departed.”

“You saw the Titanic raid?” Olivier stopped again to face Fidelity. “Nobody lives that long! Not even Union people. My ancestors, seven or eight generations back, came on the Titanic!”

“Does everybody in Oz come from Union space?” she asked.

“Darn near. Two hundred years! Jeepers! This might change a few things,” he added cryptically.

Olivier led them to the toilet facilities. When they came out, a large crowd of Olivier’s fellow workers had gathered to stare at them, all of them wearing the drab gray coveralls of laborers. Most, but not all of them, suffered obvious physical disabilities. Fidelity had cleaned the yellow dress as well as she could and now wore it again. She carried Percival’s loaned clothing neatly folded. She held one of Samson’s hands, Rafael held the other. She looked for uniformed officers of the Fleet but saw none. Olivier gave her an appreciative inspection and gestured to follow him through the crowd. They entered a cafeteria and the crowd of perhaps a hundred came in behind them and took seats.

Olivier climbed onto a table to address the assembled warehouse workers. “Lookouts posted? Good. Shut up and listen!” The workers eventually settled down, with a little help from other men who received hand signals from Olivier. “Ok, let me repeat a few things, to make sure the late arrivals and the lame-brained all have the right information. This young lady – which, it turns out, ain’t as young as she looks – took out two lieutenants just a few hours ago. Now that I see her bare shoulders, I see she ain’t no weakling. News from the sups’ warning net says she disarmed both tough guys before they could pull a trigger. Now, some of you newer guys may take her actions the wrong way. You may still feel like you’re in the Fleet, just taking a break from all the fun. You can go on believing that. I know why you feel that way, and I know you’re lying to yourselves. Do whatever you feel you should, if you dare. I think we veterans of being broken and damn-near useless should feel admiration and respect for this lady. We’ve had time to think on our past lives and ambitions and sort of put things into better perspective. Because we’re broken, we don’t fit into our old life of sups or our second life as Fleet. We aren’t liked by either bunch. In fact, we don’t have much of a life. Don’t know what we’d do without our music… Anyway, I know I have a kind of special feeling for Ruby, and for this moment in time. Additional big fact: she says she actually saw the Titanic Raid!”

The quiet men erupted into a loud babble of angry voices, most of them obviously disbelieving what Olivier had told them. Olivier waited a few moments then held up his arm and waved for attention and silence. When they ignored him, Olivier signaled for his helpers in the crowd to urge the others to get quiet.

It ain’t impossible!” Olivier shouted at the quieted men. “This lady is from the Union, where they have Mnro Clinics. Maybe it’s improbable. But how did she even know that the Titanic was taken out by our ships? Which, by the way, she described exactly! She and her friends came here through a gate. You know that nobody but very special people can use a gate. So, they’re special to somebody and I can only think of one possibility.”

The men erupted loudly again but sounded different, not as angry, but still argumentative. Fidelity was unable to hear anything identifying whom Olivier suspected of sending her and the others to Oz, except the word them was repeated many times.

“We’re lucky they still feed us entertainment from the Union through a gate,” Olivier continued when quiet returned. “So, ask yourselves why she is here. It could be a really big thing for everyone. I don’t mean you should all get religion. But it might be a good time to think about your own miserable lives, all the mistakes you made, all the good choices you could never make because you never had a chance to make them. And I ain’t telling you what’s a good choice and what’s a bad choice here. Sometimes you got to go with your gut and hope to get lucky. I, for one, am feeling real lucky today! This is one beautiful day! I ain’t turning her over to the Fleet!

Olivier made a fist with his one hand and shook it before stepping down. After a second of dead silence someone gave a whoop and bedlam erupted from the crowd of gray-clothed men in the cafeteria. Fidelity scanned the crowd, and all of those she could see seemed fanatically in support of Olivier. But in support of what? She couldn’t see any benefit to these men in aiding her. She could only see pain and death.

“Do you know what you’re doing?” Fidelity asked severely when Olivier came down from the table.

“I’m hungry, Ruby! I ain’t had breakfast yet. You guys want something to eat? The food ain’t too bad here. I’ll pay.”

“You’re very kind, Olivier,” she replied. “But are you just going to wait here for something bad to happen?”

“There’s strength in numbers.” He smiled crookedly. “Also, we all used to be tough guys, Fleet, no good, rotten bastards. We get some respect. A lot of us even kind of miss the games. Oh, and every one of us has a weapon. So, are you hungry, too?”

Fidelity was hungry, and Samson and Rafael also were. The food was good enough, although she could hardly think about food. Samson ate everything on his plate.

“Music!” Olivier shouted. He was finished eating. He slammed his empty coffee cup down.

“Music!” others echoed. Recorded music boomed from somewhere and a great number of the broken ones began to sing boisterously, Olivier included. Their mood was infectious, and the cafeteria thundered with their voices. The song had many verses and the lyrics were like a pirate’s anthem, the final verse ending in a shout of defiance.

“Ah, the good old days!” Olivier sighed. “Well, maybe not that good! We always had to fight, always had to die. It gets better the farther away the memories are.” He looked around at the men, all of them watching him, waiting for something. He looked back at Fidelity and cocked his head to one side, regarding her. “You know anything worth singing, Ruby? It’d be nice to hear a woman’s voice around here, for a change.”

“She’s a great singer!” Rafael declared.

“Is she, now?” Olivier wondered. “Can you really sing, Ruby? Really sing? Us broken guys are tough music critics. What stuff do you sing? How about opera?”

“I don’t know about opera,” Fidelity said. “I used to sing jazz and blues.”

“That’s almost as old as opera, maybe older. I’ve got perfect pitch. Let me hear a C-major scale.”

Fidelity cleared her throat and sang the scale.

“You’ve got the tubes, lady!” Olivier declared. “Do you know Un Bel Di?”

“You’re joking!” Fidelity cried, strangely shocked, both by the man’s presumption and by the meaning that title had for her.

Olivier shrugged innocently.

Something was triggered in that lost continent that was in her mind. She took a deep breath, closed her eyes, and in a moment found the score for the aria to view in her ocular terminal, almost unsurprised that it was there. Then she felt some further connection to the aria: another fragment of hidden memory, incoherent except for the beautiful melody and a painful sadness.

“Oh, Olivier, how did you know? I have actually sung that aria! Many times. Many.”

She tried to keep the bittersweet fragment of memory but it left her, making her sad, yet slightly hopeful. Perhaps, if she survived, one day she might learn why she had these forbidden memories, and then she might be able to keep them.

Olivier jumped back up on the table, scattering plates and cups. “We’ve got a singer here! A Cio-Cio-San!” Then, looking down at Fidelity, he asked: “Can you sing soprano? Your voice sounds mezzo to me.”

“I can sing soprano.” She was certain of her ability, yet not happy about the choice of music.

“What’s wrong?” Rafael asked, leaning close, pressing into Samson who sat between them.

“This aria means something to me, Rafael! I remember singing it, over and over and over. But I can’t remember what it means to me other than a kind of sweet sadness.”

“Ready?” Olivier asked. Fidelity nodded slowly. Music swelled from the speakers.

Ruby Reed sang.

= = =

“It’s been too long! You’re sleeping their lives away! You’re stealing my memories, all I have left of them! You’ve stolen my child! Why don’t you let me have what little I can have, my child, my memories, and let me go, let me live out my years and die?”

“Perhaps it has been too long! But we have to know! We have to look for them. You’re our only hope now. You must live again and carry out the final contingency plan. They may have failed. They may be dead. Now it’s our turn to do what we can. But you must lead the way. You’re the vessel that contains all of our hopes. I’ll awaken when you’re ready.”

“What do you mean? You stand in front of me and you’re not awake?”

“This isn’t me! I’m sleeping, remember? This is my duplicate. This is what an old woman with no courage does. This is what an old woman who has lost her husband to eternity does.”

“You’re not the only one to lose a husband! How many times have I awakened from a life I didn’t know wasn’t mine, to discover I’d lost my husband? How many times did I realize once again how much I’d lost?”

“He married you?”

“Yes! How many times will I tell you? I’ve always loved him! I got my chance and I took it! And now I feel this horrible ache of loss again, and I remember the other times I’ve felt it, and it’s just as fresh and horrible as it was those other times. Please, don’t make me do this! I don’t think I can endure yet another awakening!”

“You must! This will be the last time.”

“Do you have pictures of them? I’ve forgotten what they look like.”

“You’ll remember, when the time comes.”

“How long, this time?”

“I don’t know. Probably another lifetime. You have great obstacles to overcome. But I’m making you very strong. You must survive.”

“But it won’t be me, just as it isn’t you, because I won’t remember. I won’t even remember his name! And I’ll never see him again!”

= = =

“It’s beautiful,” Rafael said, “both outside and inside, yet so terrible, so unhappy.”

“We have our moments!” Olivier declared. “We just had one! I still get goose bumps, remembering Ruby singing Un Bel Di. Never heard it sung that way, or sung so beautifully! Made me cry! Yeah, that’s Oz, the Big Ball. The ocean is on the outside, a shell of water. Stops the radiation. What do you think, Ruby?”

Fidelity thought the concert would never end and she would never get her glimpse at the stars. Her singing of the Puccini aria had further ignited the emotions of the broken ones. They had serenaded her with song after song: solos, duets, trios, quartets, and even choruses! They threw themselves into their music with complete seriousness and performed extremely well. Fidelity was astonished and mystified by their total commitment to the production of their music. It seemed that it was a special occasion for them, but Olivier wouldn’t comment on the reason for it. They had begged her to sing for them again and again, and she had complied, all the time waiting for men in black uniforms to appear in the cafeteria.

Now she stood at the promised window, carefully observing the night of space surrounding a globe shining with the reflections of stars. A long thin shaft gleamed between the Big Ball and the much smaller sphere in which they stood, where hundreds of Fleet ships were docked across its close horizon like dark bumps. The Big Ball did look much like the Great Museum. She could see millions of stars surrounding it, too many stars, so many bright stars that night would never come into this place also called Oz.

“I think I’m lost,” she whispered. Both in space and in time.

Prisoner Exchange

 

“You look different, Doctor.”

So different, he hardly dared speak to her!

She had arrived at the moon terminal by transmat. He couldn’t remember her ever using a transmat before. She had always avoided them. Why were they now taking a shuttle, when their final destination could as easily be reached by transmat? She quietly sat down opposite him on the shuttle, briefly glanced at him, almost smiled, then uncharacteristically withdrew into thought. He waited for others to arrive, all of the assistants who normally traveled with her, but no one else came. The shuttle signaled the start of its short journey. He was alone with her and it was a rare moment!

He was alone with a stranger! It wasn’t the Panama straw hat she wore. It wasn’t the baldness beneath the hat. She had lived through decades when managing her hair was too much bother to her. She always claimed to be too lazy to worry about how she looked and too private to hire people to maintain her appearance. It took him a while to understand what was wrong with his perceptions; it was that they were correct. This was not Aylis Mnro who had joined him on the shuttle!

“I do?” She replied, only after seeming to wake from a trance, or from a daydream.

He gathered momentum to try to solve her mystery. “You are different!”

“I’m not the person you know,” she said, still distracted.

“Who are you?” He dared demand, disturbed by the cryptic response.

She frowned briefly as she twisted her hands in her lap, saw what she was doing, and slapped them apart on her thighs. She moved her jaw to one side, deforming her mouth in a funny way while thinking: a startling mimicry of a famous habit of the real Aylis Mnro. She leaned forward in her seat to offer her hand. “I am the original Aylis Mnro, R.K. Pleased and privileged to meet you.”

He almost failed to respond to her offered hand. Even after a century of friendship, touching Doctor Mnro was to him a rare and desirable privilege. R. K. Ramadhal took the woman’s hand and felt her tremble. Or perhaps it was his own doubt and indecision transferred to his hand. Was this Doctor Mnro? He looked into her blue eyes and saw – panic? The meaning of her words, and almost the words themselves, slipped away from his comprehension. “How can you be?” he nearly mumbled.

“I’ve been asleep for two centuries but I’m awake now – and quite scared!” The woman gasped. “Oh, dear God! How could I say that to you?”

She released his hand as though he had hurt her. He stared at his hand as he tried to retrieve what she first said to him.

“Asleep for two centuries?” he questioned her. “I don’t understand, Doctor Mnro!”

“Aylis! Call me Aylis! How many times have I asked you to call me Aylis?”

How many days in a century? She knew their history together! It was impossible to think of her as Aylis. But this was someone different, someone he didn’t know – as if he ever really knew Doctor Mnro! Obviously, he never really knew her! He tried to study her without appearing too eager, too agitated. She seemed to recover from the panic, although she still looked tense. She was quite different! For one thing, in the space of the three days since he last saw her she had lost at least twenty years of age. “You look young, Doctor – Aylis. Too young. How did – ?”

“Do I? Oh, I was afraid of that! Is it too late to turn back? No, I must go on! R.K., I’m so sorry to have involved you in this! Stay on the shuttle! Don’t go into the Eclipse with me!”

Her words flew out of her almost faster than she could form them, shouting her anxiety to Ramadhal and making him more nervous. He never saw Doctor Mnro lose her composure for any reason. He never saw her be frightened. If this was she, he didn’t want her to act this way! If this was she… It made no sense! His deep loyalty to Doctor Mnro remained intact. If this woman was in any way an approximation of the real Doctor Mnro, he would be loyal to her also. He knew something momentous had occurred in her life and he must assume this was part of that upheaval and that it was legitimate. Legitimate and impossible!

He tried to argue. “You said you needed me.”

“I did and I do! But this is dangerous! It was wrong for me to ask you to accompany me.”

“Why would it be dangerous?” He knew ignorance and denial were making him braver than he ought to be. They would be guests of the Navy very shortly. The Navy!

“Because of what I just said! It was a stupid, thoughtless error! And I didn’t realize my appearance was so different. Why couldn’t she have told me? Because she was, by definition, as stupid as I am!”

There were two of her, Ramadhal finally made clear to himself. Perhaps an identical twin. Nothing impossible. Nothing so greatly mysterious. A wonderful secret that perhaps only he now shared with her. The sisters – not clones, he hoped! – perhaps took turns handling the monumental task of building and running the Mnro Clinics. He let the simple explanation satisfy him, so that he could manage the emotional confrontation.

“I want to accompany you onto the Eclipse!” he declared. “I feel I must!”

“Dear, dear R.K.! You’ve always been the sweetest person, the most patient, and undoubtedly the most vital to my sanity. I thought I was rewarding your service and your friendship by inviting you on this… this mission. I thought you deserved a share of my adventure and would benefit from meeting the high and mighty lord Admiral Etrhnk. But the closer we approach that meeting, the more frightened and worried I become! I had decided for you and I to make this trip by shuttle, just to use the privacy to dissuade both of us, or one of us, from going aboard the Eclipse. Things were happening too fast to plan or even think!”

How identical could a twin sister be? Ramadhal wondered. How can she speak as if she knew me for all these years? All Ramadhal could dare ask was: “Why is this happening?”

“I have secrets, R.K.”

“That was obvious to me! From the moment you told me about Pan. I’ve wondered about your relationship to him ever since Sugai Mai asked me about it more than thirty years ago.”

“You’ve met him, haven’t you?” she asked.

“Yes. We’ve been friends for many years, mainly because I wanted to know why he was important to you. He never gave me a reason. I don’t believe he knows why. That’s another reason I felt I needed to accompany you: he’s my friend, too, you know.”

“I wish you wouldn’t follow me!” But Mnro said it in a way that seemed to allow for the opposite meaning.

“I’m already a scheduled guest of the Navy Commander,” he stated.

This impossible copy of Doctor Mnro sat across from Ramadhal and stared at him the way the real Mnro could see through him. Temporarily released from the stress of the moment, she could make all the facial expressions that were perfect facsimiles of those of the real Mnro. The real Mnro? He then realized that this woman actually felt more real to him. Her excited presence and her mystery threw his decades of memory of Doctor Mnro into comparative paleness.

Mnro studied Ramadhal’s expression and seemed to arrive at a decision. She spoke wistfully. “Pan is the son of my husband.”

Son? Husband? He could not have been more surprised. How could she keep such a secret for so long?

“How could I keep such a secret?” she asked, obviously reading his astonished reaction as well as the real Mnro could. Just as keenly she anticipated his next emotional reaction. “I’m sorry I couldn’t tell you before now, but it was for the sake of security, mine and his, and yours.”

“Your husband.” The words tasted slightly bitter to Ramadhal. He realized he had always felt Doctor Mnro belonged to him, in some collegial way, that he loved her as a friend, and that he could imagine her as more than a friend, and now she was lost to him as the wife of someone else. How much did his eyes betray him, as she gazed at him in such concern?

“Who is he?” Ramadhal asked. It was the kind of question he would never have dared ask, until now.

Mnro leaned back in her seat and turned away to watch the dark limb of the moon uncover a sprinkle of glinting space countries. “I don’t know,” she finally replied sadly.

Her answer disturbed Ramadhal almost as much as did knowing she had a husband. The averting of her eyes allowed him to selfishly enjoy her youthful features and to try to believe she was the same person he knew as Aylis Mnro. Yet, she was not.

“How could you not know who he is?” Ramadhal finally dared to ask.

“I only remember that I had a husband.” She sounded frustrated. “I remember that I loved him so… so imperfectly! I remember that he’s lost, somewhere far away. I remember these few ideas with an intensity that’s unbearable! This is a new thing for me, this remembering. Oh, God, and I remember my son! My real son!”

She was frozen in troubled thought for several moments. Ramadhal dared not disturb her.

A soft yet startling chime signaled arrival at the Eclipse. The door of the automated spacecraft opened. Doctor Mnro stood up and took a deep breath. Ramadhal stood up with her. She stepped toward the door and he followed her. She stopped and turned to face him.

“Please!” she implored him. She placed a hand on his shoulder and gently pressed. He shook his head in refusal. He removed her hand from his shoulder, clasped it in both of his, and gave it back to her. She quickly leaned forward and kissed him. “From now on I’m kissing everyone I love, because I may never get another chance!”

Ramadhal was proud he never considered obeying Mnro’s wish for him to stay on the shuttle. He was deeply pleasured with the affection she bestowed on him. He had infinite courage – at least for the moment – to follow his friend – his new friend – as far as he could.

They stepped onto red carpet and two dozen Marines in dress uniform snapped to attention. A bosun piped them aboard the Navy flagship Eclipse. They walked between the opposing ranks of the brightly-uniformed Marines and up to the tall, black-uniformed, Navy Commander Admiral Etrhnk, a mass of diamond stars of rank twinkling on the high collar around his neck. Doctor Mnro continued past him, forcing him to hurry and fall in step with her. Ramadhal trailed behind them.

“Where is he?” she demanded with false bravado, heading across the debarkation bay toward a personnel exit.

“I could guess at the identity of this person,” Etrhnk said without apparent concern, “but I’ll ask anyway. Who?”

“My younger son, Admiral. You know him as Pan. The Opera Master of Earth.”

“I wasn’t aware you had any children, Doctor Mnro.” The Navy Commander, seemingly unbothered by Mnro’s odd behavior and unexpected information, indicated the direction they should walk as they entered an intraship transport terminal. A tube car awaited them.

“I’m not his biological mother,” Mnro said. “I think his mother is dead and his father disappeared long ago. I’m all he has left.”

“You knew his parents?”

Ramadhal felt invisible as they seated themselves for a journey through the ship. He preferred it, so that he could listen intently to Doctor Mnro and wonder about what he heard.

“I didn’t know his mother,” Mnro said. “I was his father’s first wife. How do you do, Admiral Etrhnk? I’m sorry to be such an ill-mannered guest.”

She extended a pale, delicate hand, which he took carefully in his large, dark hand.

“Perhaps understandable,” the tall Essiin admiral said. “And this would be Doctor R. K. Ramadhal. Honored to meet you, sir. I expected many more in the entourage.”

Ramadhal was immediately fascinated with the composition of Admiral Etrhnk. He was quite a rare Essiin specimen of genetic modification. When the light was just right he could see faint patterns in his face, possibly fluorescent in different lighting.

“I thought about dressing up some of my gardeners,” Mnro said, “and having them tour your famous arboretum. You have a small version of it on your flagship? But most of them double as security guards, and I didn’t want them becoming too stressed.”

“Yes, a quiet place to myself,” Etrhnk said. “Why would your gardeners become stressed?”

“They’re quite attuned to my moods and body language. As you must have detected, I’m not very calm. You could even say I’m terrified.”

“You have no need to be. And your son – Pan – is in no danger and hasn’t been harmed. Please know that you’re perfectly safe in my company. It disturbs me that you could possibly feel otherwise. Is there something I don’t understand?”

“No, I think you understand more than I do,” Mnro said. “It’s ignorance that makes me nervous. I’ve come charging into your ship to rescue Pan without the slightest notion of how to do it. Other than being the famous Aylis Mnro, what leverage do I have?”

“You should put aside your mistaken notion that you must in some manner battle me for the freedom of your son. He’s a very interesting person, but I can’t hold him for being a mystery.”

“But you can hold him for some other reason?”

“He seems to have a falsified genetic identity. Would the Mnro Clinic know why his record is incorrect?”

Ramadhal watched Mnro turn inward at the question and seem to lose contact with them. Etrhnk watched her also, but otherwise did not react to her strange behavior. She soon returned to normal and responded to the question.

“He was a refugee from the Rhyan Empire and was granted special protection.”

“Can you prove this?” Etrhnk asked.

“Not easily. I’ll make a sworn statement. I think my word should be worth something.”

The intraship conveyance came to a stop and Etrhnk led Mnro and Ramadhal into his suite of offices. They entered a very plain white meeting room containing only a few chairs and a dark wooden table. One wall showed a view of the moon and the lights of cities on its night side. The Navy Commander allowed Mnro and Ramadhal to choose places to sit and a few moments to bring their attentions back to him.

“Your manner of dealing with me isn’t what I expected,” Etrhnk commented, which Ramadhal supposed revealed something of how Mnro may have disturbed him.

“What did you expect?” Mnro asked.

“That you have the confidence of being the most famous person alive, that you have the logic of the great scientist you are.”

“I’m just a mother trying to help her son! I’ve never been able to apply logic to my personal affairs.”

“Beware Earthians who deny use of logic.” Etrhnk said it as though quoting an Essiin adage. “Let us talk and perhaps a solution will present itself. Or would you first rather have the visitor’s tour of the ship?”

“I’ve seen a few Navy ships in my time.” Mnro almost sounded like the confident person Ramadhal knew. “I assume you have a full spectrum of devices measuring our biological parameters as we speak?”

“It’s rather important that I have some confidence in the data I collect from you.”

“All you have to know is how to ask the right questions and your lie detectors will verify the answers.”

“A harsh way to put it, but true. I apologize for it but how else can a simple Essiin protect himself from Earthian subterfuge? Especially when Earthians don’t always realize on a conscious level when they stray from the truth. You must know how devious the Earthian mind is.”

“Yes, it’s a terrible struggle against a pernicious affliction. Which Essiin do you mean? You’re not simple and you’re not Essiin.”

Not Essiin? Ramadhal wondered, trying to see the evidence that Mnro saw. He was afraid to scrutinize the Navy Commander too obviously.

“You have another child?” Etrhnk queried, ignoring Mnro’s assertion.

“Yes. He used to be a Navy officer. I’ve lost touch with him.”

“There’s no record of your being a mother. Would he be your biological son?”

“Yes. I’m his real mother.”

“Why did you disconnect yourself from him?”

“How could he live his own life, tied to me?”

“What is his name?”

“Direk.”

“An old traditional Essiin name.”

“He’s only one-fourth Essiin, but very much the Essiin ice cube.”

“I see we have a Captain Direk.” Etrhnk had obviously consulted his shiplink. “A senior scientist.”

A picture of a light-skinned Earthian Navy officer appeared next to the moon’s image on the wall of the room.

“That’s him,” Mnro said, frowning after suppressing a possible shock of recognition. Ramadhal could see a resemblance between Mnro and this pale man’s image.

“I’ve heard of this officer,” Etrhnk stated. “Fascinating, to learn that he’s your son and is also part Essiin. Would that mean his father is half Essiin?”

“And half Earthian.”

“Who was your husband?”

“I don’t remember.”

Etrhnk leaned back and remained quiet for several moments, as though waiting for Mnro to change her answer, but also apparently contemplating data that flowed into his brain by shiplink. He turned unexpectedly and focused on Ramadhal. “Doctor Ramadhal, you seem perplexed. Why is that?”

Ramadhal looked at Mnro who merely smiled sadly at him. “She told me on the way here – for the first time – that she once had a husband but didn’t know who he was.”

“I beg your pardon,” Etrhnk said to Mnro. “I’ve asked all the questions as if this was an interrogation. It seems you’re not the only one suffering memory problems. You know Admiral Demba, don’t you? If Pan is connected to Demba and you’re connected to him, you might also be connected to Demba.”

“Logical,” Mnro admitted.

“Was she Ruby Reed?” Etrhnk asked.

“Who?”

“Let me show you Demba’s image.”

The entire view on the wall was replaced by a gray field with an official Navy portrait of Admiral Fidelity Demba centered in it. Mnro made a show of studying the image impassively. She shook her head.

“You don’t recognize her?”

“I can’t tell you.”

“She is important to you,” Etrhnk stated.

Aylis Mnro would not respond to the Navy Commander’s statement. Ramadhal could sense the truth of it. He was certain Etrhnk had ample telemetric evidence to gain the same conclusion. Ramadhal had no idea who Admiral Demba was, but he was sure she was extremely important to Mnro. He was always attuned to her moods, and this Aylis Mnro reacted identically, even through the uncharacteristic layer of fear.

“Come with me,” Etrhnk said, rising from the meeting-room table and moving toward the wall that displayed the image of Fidelity Demba. “I have another picture of her.”

Etrhnk paused and gestured for his guests to walk ahead of him. Part of his arm was passed through the image, showing there was no wall at the plane of the image.

Stepping through the image into a lower illumination, Ramadhal and Mnro immediately saw the portrait resting on an easel and were arrested by it. Mnro released a choked-off gasp. It was an astounding portrait of a beautiful African woman! It was hard to believe it was the same Navy admiral, but it was. There was paint on the easel, as though it was used in painting the portrait.

“Bad things have happened recently on Earth,” Etrhnk said. “I took this from the residence of Rafael de LaGuardia, to save it, while the structure was burning.”

Mnro continued to drink in the magic of the oil portrait. Neither she nor Ramadhal could even respond to the disturbing news of a fire.

“Would you like to have the painting?” Etrhnk inquired.

The offer was unexpected, even shocking. Mnro couldn’t reply or wouldn’t reply. Ramadhal knew she had to want it; therefore, so did Etrhnk. His query must have been used to verify his assessment of the relationship between Mnro and Demba. Ramadhal now knew Fidelity Demba was extremely important to Mnro; therefore, so did Etrhnk.

Mnro eventually responded in a shaky voice. “It isn’t yours to keep or to give. It must be an original!”

Ramadhal could only stand and stare at the painting. He had viewed the most famous of the artist’s works often enough to have accepted the high opinions of the art critics on faith. He had always felt they were compelling images but Ramadhal thought he lacked the sensitivity and fine-arts education to enjoy their full effect. This painting, however, pushed through his protective ignorance to play a crashing chord on his emotions. Whoever the dark lady in the canvas was, he wanted to know her! Perhaps it was the situation in which he viewed it, which – until now – seemed not as dire as Mnro predicted. Only now did Ramadhal begin to sense the power of the forces at work. Why would Admiral Etrhnk present them to this stolen masterpiece? What had happened to Rafael and his subject? Did Etrhnk mention a fire? How would Doctor Mnro be affected by this development? Ramadhal didn’t like the way Etrhnk looked at Mnro. Ramadhal desperately wanted to protect her.

“Where is she now?” Mnro asked, sounding miserable at revealing her concern for the African woman.

Admiral Etrhnk moved to stand behind the portrait on the easel. “I don’t know,” he answered.

He and Mnro looked at each other for a long moment from opposite sides of the portrait. Ramadhal hated this. Each such visual drinking of Mnro’s lovely visage by Etrhnk seemed to subtract from Ramadhal’s well-earned share of her life. He was losing her. He had already lost her, one of her. Which one?

“How can you not know?” Mnro demanded. Ramadhal could hear desperation in her voice.

“I share your concern for her.” Etrhnk convinced neither of them of his concern. He had no emotions.

“What do you want?” Mnro asked tiredly: a way of acknowledging Etrhnk’s dominance.

“What do you want?” he countered.

“I want my friend!”

“You’ve known her a long time?”

“Forever.”

“Friendship aside, why do you want her?”

“I know you are not blind to emotions!” Mnro declared. Then she seemed seized again by inward forces, her blue eyes losing focus. Neither Ramadhal nor Etrhnk moved, frozen with anticipation for what stirred within Mnro’s mind. Finally, Ramadhal could see Mnro’s face signal that she had made an important decision.

“She’s leaving Union space on an exploration mission,” Mnro stated.

“If she reappears, should I remove her from the mission?” Etrhnk asked, almost making it a request for Mnro’s permission. Almost.

Mnro took a very deep breath. “I want to go with her.”

Ramadhal was shocked. Was this why she had announced her retirement from the Mnro Clinics? He couldn’t believe Mnro would put herself aboard a Navy mission. He couldn’t believe Etrhnk would allow it.

“Why?” Etrhnk asked.

She turned to Ramadhal as she spoke to Etrhnk. Ramadhal watched the signs of strong emotions play upon her youthful face and in her ancient eyes.

“I’ve lived a long time, Admiral. I’ve existed a long time. I’m ready for something new. And I’m ready to resume an old friendship I had forgot I had.”

“With a woman who must be a stranger to you by now?” Etrhnk asked.

Mnro stared longingly at the painting. “Yes, we all change over time, but she and I share a history that will never be forgotten. And I believe our most important traits will make us friends again.”

“How did you know her?” Etrhnk asked, and asked more. “What was she like? What did she do?” Ramadhal saw that Etrhnk was abnormally interested in his female admiral. Ramadhal certainly was interested in her.

“I’m sorry,” Mnro said, “but I won’t tell you about her.”

“Why not?” Etrhnk asked.

“I don’t trust my memories. I don’t trust myself. I make decisions at times when I don’t know enough to be certain of consequences.”

“Yet you have decided to abandon your life’s work,” Etrhnk said, “for the sake of this ancient friendship, and for passage on a dangerous journey.”

“If you won’t put me on the Freedom, I’ll try to meet up with her on her outbound course.”

“What of the Mnro Clinics?” he asked.

“Doctor Ramadhal should assume my duties, if he will.” She turned back to Ramadhal, smiling sadly at the surprise she saw on his face.

You can’t leave me! Ramadhal wanted to shout; but, looking again at the marvelous portrait of Fidelity Demba, he thought he could appreciate Mnro’s motivation. He knew Rafael de LaGuardia. He knew the artist was dying of aging and had abandoned his art for many years. He knew that for Rafael to paint such a glorious portrait at this stage of his life must require potent inspiration – perhaps from Fidelity Demba. Demba could easily be worth the importance Mnro gave her. Assume Mnro’s duties? How could he replace Aylis Mnro? She was the Mnro Clinics!

“The implications of your words go far beyond what I can easily imagine,” Etrhnk said. “You and Demba and the Opera Master present a mystery to me. While the mystery is a challenge to my intellect that I readily accept, I think it is also a threat.”

“How could we threaten you?” Mnro asked, turning back to the tall admiral, looking up at his austere face.

“Believe my words,” he ordered. “Perhaps you’re too isolated in your personal life, Doctor Mnro, but try to imagine a person of your historical stature placing herself in the middle of the problem I have with Admiral Demba. You raise the level of concern more than an order of magnitude. There are too many mysteries for there to exist a simple and safe resolution.”

“If I’m part of the mystery, why not keep me close, until you can be rid of me permanently?”

“Put you on the Freedom? Let me test your sincerity, Doctor. I will give you the rank of admiral, to place you under Navy authority, and assign you as Chief Medical Officer of the Freedom. That is the only way you will board that vessel, even if only for a short time. I don’t promise you’ll sail with her.”

“What about Pan?” she inquired.

Ramadhal’s heart sank, seeing Mnro not hesitate to accept Etrhnk’s proposition, even with its threatened limits.

“He can go back to Earth,” Admiral Etrhnk answered.

“Will he remain free?” Doctor Mnro asked.

“How free are any of us? I’ll keep him under observation, unless you can answer the questions I have about him.”

“I’ve told you all I remember at this time. When can I see Pan?”

“Soon. On Earth. When can we formalize your induction into the Navy?”

“Now,” she responded with finality.

= = =

When Etrhnk was alone again he sat in front of the painting and stared at it for a long time. He looked at the sketches of Demba and the boy. He put down the sketches, raised a hand toward the portrait, clenched his fist, and let it drop limply to his lap. It was an emotion that formed and escaped, despite a lifetime of perfect control. He didn’t even know what that emotion meant.

Rescue Mission to Oz

 

[Boring, very boring.]

[It’s the nature of android life. We exist to serve. Our tasks are repetitive. Imagination isn’t required. What would you like to do next?]

[The transmat is back in service.]

[Where do we go?]

[You go. Africa.]

[To the admiral’s yacht?]

[The transmat will cut my data link. When you get there, I’ll be in the ship. I want you to enter the ship and find a physical link to me. I’ll tell you where to go. Will you do that?]

[What is your purpose?]

[Pan gave you an order to help Admiral Demba if you could.]

[Yes.]

[That’s my purpose. For you to help her, you must help me.]

Fred the android stepped onto the transmat focus and vanished. He reappeared an hour later.

[That was fun. Are you feeling crowded?]

[I have more room than ever. I can store a millennium of events here.]

[Don’t get too possessive. That’s me you’re ogling. I may look big and empty because I’m young.]

[Now what?]

[Wait for our new friend. Let’s go back to the living room.]

Fred stood very still in the living room of Pan’s apartment. Two people walked in from the transmat room. Fred recognized the man and could infer the identity of the woman. Freddy was surprised at their appearance.

“Who are you?” the woman asked, removing her Panama hat and standing with it in both hands in front of Fred.

“I’m Fred,” Freddy replied. “Are you Aylis Mnro?”

“Yes, I am! This is Doctor Ramadhal. We expected to see Pan.”

“I know R.K.,” Fred said, nodding in his direction. “How are you doing, R.K.?” Ramadhal hesitated replying to Fred’s odd behavior and before he could reply Freddy asked Mnro: “Why do you expect to see Pan?”

“I’ve secured his release from the Eclipse,” Mnro answered, herself frowning at the android. “He should arrive soon. Have you known Pan long?”

“Many years. How long have you known him?”

“You’re quite the conversationalist, Fred! I’m the first wife of his father.”

“He doesn’t know that, does he?”

“He doesn’t know he knows it. You are a remarkable android. Why do you have all those weapons? You’re an ambulatory arsenal!”

“Top secret mission, ma’am. I’m very pleased to meet you. I must ask you to step over to the far side of the room. I don’t know how accurate or how nice the gatekeeper is.”

“Gatekeeper?”

Ramadhal moved quickly and Mnro stumbled backward as Old Fred held out his arms to herd them away from the center of the room. After a few awkwardly silent moments of staring at each other a soft pop startled Mnro and Ramadhal and produced the instant arrival of the gatekeeper: a square pillar of coal-black mass sprinkled with brilliant gems of many colors. It stood on a circle of gray concrete that had replaced the floor.

“Are you ready?” the gatekeeper asked in Twenglish in a high, clear voice.

“Yes,” Freddy answered, walking back to the center of the room and standing within the gray circle next to the pillar of sparkling dark matter. Freddy spoke to Mnro and Ramadhal. “Please remain where you are until we disappear. Be careful of the floor. It may be weakened.”

[If Pan is soon released, then…] Old Fred thought.

[Too late, my friend.] Freddie thought.

The strange android saluted Mnro and Ramadhal just before he and the alien pillar vanished, leaving an exotic scent in the air that lingered briefly. A circle of material foreign to that in Pan’s apartment now replaced the gray concrete and settled into the floor unevenly.

Mnro and Ramadhal looked at each other, equally astonished.

= = =

[No time for sight-seeing.]: Fred.

[Is it my imagination, or are you developing an annoying semblance of humanity? This is a fascinating place!]: Freddy.

[I’m here, wherever this is, possibly against my orders. I want to go back as soon as possible.]: Fred.

[We have to find them. This is where they started from. How can we know where they went?]: Freddy.

“Wait here.”

[Did you say something?]: Freddy.

[No, I thought you did.]: Fred.

“Gatekeeper, did you say something?” Fred-Freddy asked.

“Yes. Wait here. That’s the message I relay to you.”

“She’s talking to you and not to me?”

“It’s easier for her.”

“I don’t see how. I have all manner of inputs.”

“She knows me better.”

“What are we waiting for?”

“Be patient!”

= = =

Percival could hardly think of anything beyond the loss of his hand. He couldn’t feel anything beyond the pain and what it meant to his life and being. Yet, he could faintly hope he would see the woman Fidelity again. His memory of the woman was totally changed by Rafael’s portrait. He held his injured arm lightly against his stomach in a hopeless attempt to ease the pain. The bloody bandage was mostly dry now, as the site of the amputation had almost stopped bleeding. He felt sick and light-headed. He pulled his gaze upward as he neared his destination – the same place he had met the four strangers – Tangle Intersection and the Red Building. He saw not the woman, but an oddly dressed stranger who must be his next person to help. He stumbled across the slower lanes to the shelf at the intersection of concourses. The effort of walking and enduring the pain the motion caused made him gasp for breath. At least he didn’t have to leap down to the opposite travel lanes.

Percival tried to speak normally but so many things prevented it. “I’m here, sir… The Quiet One… spoke to me again. She told me… to come here.”

“Quiet One?” the man queried.

“A hopeless ghost for the hopeful,” something other responded.

Percival would have jumped in startlement when he finally noticed the dark sparkling ball behind the strange man, but the pain of his burning and aching arm damped all motion and all emotion. Had the ball spoken?

“Do you think it is the same voice we hear?” the man asked. “Is it Milly?”

“That’s harder to answer than you might think,” the ball replied, “but the approximate answer is yes. What’s wrong with the boy’s arm? You’re blocking my view.”

The man stepped aside and the ball rolled forward and started to change shape. Percival gave a sigh that was part resignation and part fear. He knew of only one thing the ball could be and he could hardly bring his mind to bear on how he should react. “Gatekeeper!” Percival cried. “Please don’t hurt me!”

“You are already hurt,” the gatekeeper stated.

“His hand is missing!” the man declared. “How awful!”

“He’s about to collapse,” the gatekeeper warned. “Catch him!”

The man grabbed him at each bicep, causing Percival to weakly gasp. He lowered Percival to the shining floor. A moment later something stung the back of his neck and Percival’s perceptions dimmed and got foggy. He could still hear and comprehend in a detached sort of way as he slowly reclined onto his back.

“What are you doing?” the man asked.

“Pull him up, please! You are so slow to react!”

“That’s because there are two of us working the controls in here. Fred seems to be a little more lively than normal. Freddy seems to be a little more distracted than normal! There is no normal for me! I’m just studying where we are at and it’s nowhere in my catalog of Union places. Where are we?”

“I need to do some medical work on this guy,” the gatekeeper said impatiently. “He isn’t much use to us in his condition.”

“Oh, sorry! He must be in pain. And dizzy from blood loss.”

Percival’s pain ceased. His mind seemed to wander away from his body. Time slid down a dark tunnel where he could hear many voices, some of them sounding like children. Then he wandered back into his body and looked for his missing hand but it was still missing. The pain returned but it was faint, like an echo. He focused his eyes on his right wrist and saw the bandage was gone. He had to look away from the raw flesh he saw. The man picked him up from the floor easily. His face came to within inches of the stranger’s face and Percival realized he was looking at an android.

“Hello, there,” the android said. “Are you feeling better?”

“Uh, I am! Just a little weak, that’s all. I lost a lot of blood. I was going to the hospital when I heard the voice of the Quiet One.”

“What is your name, and can you help us now?”

“Percival. What is yours?”

“Freddy. Fred! Ok, Fred or Freddy. Your choice. We can take you to a hospital after you tell us where the admiral is.”

“Admiral?” Percival asked. “Ow!” He felt a sting in his leg and saw the gatekeeper withdraw a pointed shape back into itself.

“We are looking for a woman and a boy, and there may be two others with her,” the gatekeeper said impatiently.

“You’re a gatekeeper!” Percival said fearfully. “You kill people for She Who Must Not Be Named. I’m sorry! I won’t answer your questions! Ow!”

The gatekeeper punched Percival again with a sharp extrusion. “I don’t have time for dogma! I need to rescue Samson again, along with his chosen guardian. Why were you summoned to our aid, if you can’t or won’t answer our questions?”

“You weren’t sent by She Who Must Not-?”

“We were not sent by the Lady in the Mirror! We were sent by a person named Milly, whom I’ve known for about four hundred years.”

“But you kill people!”

“I’ve never intentionally killed an organic being!” the gatekeeper responded impatiently. “But, God knows, I’ve wanted to! I send them to another place.”

“Where?” Percival asked fearfully.

“You want to find out? Tell me where the woman and the boy are!”

“I don’t know!” Percival replied, backing away, until the android grabbed his arm in an unbreakable grip. “It’s the truth! The woman sent me away when the Fleet invaded the museum. Then I saw the portrait the old man – Rafael! – painted of her, and I knew then I should not have left them! But I was afraid, before I saw the portrait, and then I knew I had failed the Quiet One! I am so miserable! I thought this would be my chance to correct my mistake, although, what could she expect of me? I could barely walk out of the museum.”

“That sounds true to me,” the android said, perhaps even sympathetically.

“It probably is,” the gatekeeper said. “We’ll have to do it the hard way. Ok, Percival, which hospital do you want to go to?”

“I don’t know,” Percival replied. “I would have gone to the one down in the maintenance neighborhood. But that’s where I took the Rhyan. I told the Fleet I took him there. If they found him there, they may have punished the hospital and I’d be responsible.”

“Daidaunkh is also our responsibility,” the android said to the gatekeeper. “We should go there and find out what happened.”

“I wouldn’t mind damaging a few tough guys to see if they know where Samson is,” the gatekeeper mused. “Let’s cluster and pop. There’s a local gate I can call up.”

The android and gatekeeper moved closer to Percival and a moment later the entrance of the hospital appeared. Percival started to move in that direction but a nursing station inside the hospital blinked into existence. They were inside the hospital. They had gone though a gate! This really was a gatekeeper! They were legendary, but no one had seen one for a very long time. Maybe the horror stories are not true, Percival thought, just tales told to frighten children.

The android named Fred or Freddy stepped toward a reception desk. The people behind it backed away, probably having seen the gatekeeper, which was transforming into a cylindrical pillar beside Percival. Percival could feel heat radiating from the gatekeeper and see dark circular spots that rotated around the upper end of the pillar, as though they were eyes keeping watch in all directions.

Fred waved a summoning hand and two female medical persons, perhaps nurses, looked at each other and slowly approached the counter, a grim set to their expressions.

“I seek a certain Rhyan patient of yours named Daidaunkh,” Freddy said, looking from one to the other with a slight turn of his head. “Is he here?”

“What do you want with him?” the older nurse asked. “You have a lot of weapons.”

“Yes, I have many weapons. I wish to accompany the Rhyan out of here, if he’s able to leave.”

“We don’t allow weapons in the hospital,” she said, meeting his gaze and not blinking.

“Sorry,” Freddy replied. “It won’t happen again. We have a new patient for you. Someone cut off his hand. If Daidaunkh is not here, tell us where he went.”

“He’s still here,” the younger nurse answered, getting a frown from her fellow nurse. “But the Fleet told us to hold him.”

“Well, then, what shall we do?” Freddy wondered aloud.

The gatekeeper moved forward, burning the floor, until it touched the counter, which also began to smoke. “Bring him to us! This is the business of the Lady in the Mirror!”

Both nurses were clearly dismayed by the gatekeeper but also gasped in reaction to the phrase Lady in the Mirror as though it was a potent curse. They quickly fought to consult the same data display device. The younger one then hurried off. “She will bring him,” the remaining nurse explained, backing farther away.

“You made me think you were not in the service of the evil one!” Percival complained to the gatekeeper.

One of the black discs in the column of the gatekeeper rotated to regard Percival. “It will become the business of the Lady in the Mirror soon enough. I suggest you stay here and keep quiet!”

“No! I want to go with you – if you really are working for the Quiet One.”

Freddy turned to the gatekeeper. “Is Milly this Quiet One? And can you keep from burning down the hospital?”

“I try to avoid theology,” the gatekeeper replied. “It’s too messy for any logical discussion.” It backed away from the counter. “I don’t usually get this hot. I have all four fusion reactors on-line, kind of in an emergency mode.”

“The Quiet One is named Milly?” Percival cried, uncertain if he had heard blasphemy.

The younger nurse returned, leading a limping Rhyan, who understandably paused when he saw the gatekeeper, but then looked with recognition upon Percival and also nodded to the android.

“Old Fred,” Daidaunkh greeted. “Why are you here?”

“I’m retrieving you. Please choose a weapon with which to arm yourself. I must warn you that I can’t allow you to harm Admiral Demba or the others. Please promise not to do so.”

“Do you know where the admiral is?” Daidaunkh asked.

“Not yet. Have your injuries been repaired? And how about promising not to hurt the admiral?”

“I am somewhat repaired,” Daidaunkh answered. “And you obviously don’t understand how difficult it is to hurt the admiral. What is this thing?” He indicated the dark glimmering column that was the gatekeeper.

“A friend of mine,” Freddy responded. “She’s a gatekeeper. She can move us in an instant to wherever we wish.”

“I’m not a she!” the gatekeeper objected. “But I hadn’t considered such a designation before. Interesting. Ok, we have your Rhyan friend. You think he’s capable of helping us?”

“He was a military man,” Freddy replied.

“Where do you think they have gone?” the gatekeeper asked.

“You ask me?” Daidaunkh asked. “They left with this young man. What happened to your hand, Percival?”

“A Fleet officer cut it off,” Percival replied. “Oh, I wish I had stayed with the woman!”

“The Fleet may already have them,” the gatekeeper said. “They might take them to their headquarters, which is outside of Oz. Pardon me, while I reconnoiter.” The gatekeeper morphed into a cube, backed away, and disappeared, leaving another foreign circle in the floor.

“I still haven’t heard a promise,” Freddy said to the startled Daidaunkh. “You won’t get one of these pistols until I hear you promise.”

“I do not intend to kill the only person who may be able to keep Rafael and the boy from harm!” Daidaunkh snatched a weapon from the collection attached to Fred’s butler’s uniform and checked it.

= = =

Black-uniformed soldiers burst through three of the six doorways into the observation room. They fanned out, weapons drawn, but hesitated in their deployment when they realized how many broken ones stood on either side of the great window-on-space with weapons in hand.

Fidelity turned around from the window, holding Samson in her arms. The gleaming jade sphere of the Big Ball dominated the view behind her. Rafael put a hand on her arm and sadly sighed. Olivier immediately walked toward the Fleet officers and stopped. He was unarmed. A Fleet captain, pistol in hand, came forward, glaring at the ranks of armed warehouse workers dressed in their gray coveralls. He stopped, leaving a long space between him and Olivier in the center of the room.

“Explain this!” the ranking officer ordered.

“They’re special guests of ours,” Olivier answered, indicating Fidelity, Samson, and Raphael. “They wanted to see from that window.”

“The woman is wanted by the Fleet. Get out! Leave them!”

“Cut the crap, Captain! She just defended herself! She came to Oz through a gate, so she’s important to someone. You want to get into trouble with the Lady in the Mirror?”

The captain’s eyes widened in shock. “Are you trying to get us all killed?” He turned his head in two directions, as though looking for something.

“I wouldn’t mind seeing the Lady in the Mirror before I die,” Olivier stated with a grim smile. “I’ve never seen her. No one’s seen her for a while. You gotta keep testing her, or else we could be wasting some freedom.”

“Sorry to disappoint you, Olivier,” the captain said, raising his pistol. He stopped when the broken ones also raised their weapons.

“Didn’t know you knew my name, Captain Sanda. What if I told you this lady saw the Titanic raid?”

“What have you been drinking?”

“She saw it! She described it exactly! You didn’t bring enough Tough Guys, Captain. You shoot me, then all of you die.”

“So, all I have to do is wait,” the captain said, holstering his pistol. “There are more of us coming. Yes, that’s interesting, about the woman. And she’s the one who disarmed the two sup-pushers?”

“I don’t know nothing about that, Captain. I do know she can sing. You ask any of the Broken here. We had a hell of a concert down in the mess hall. We all love her. You wait as long as you like, Captain. There are more of us coming, too. It’ll be great! I guess we’ve found our Un Bel Di. Like the Fleet says, the day we die is a beautiful day. This is the day!”

“Olivier, wait!” Fidelity was alarmed at the meaning of his words. Why was there so much violence in her life? Why was Samson always being exposed to it? She had failed miserably to imagine the consequences of any of her decisions in this place. Olivier was smiling as seemed normal for him, even as he calmly accepted death as his immediate future. She set Samson down beside Rafael. She squeezed between two of the broken ones shielding her and took the few steps to stand beside Olivier. “I can’t allow you to lay down your lives for me!” she pleaded to the one-armed man.

“It isn’t just for you!” Olivier argued. “What’s life if it’s empty? You just filled it for me! From this point on, it’s all glory!”

“Glory is highly overrated! Please, take your people and leave!”

“We can’t! You don’t understand! They won’t let any of us live! We knew that when we brought you here! Use us! We’re not worth much except for right now!”

Fidelity could not believe Olivier’s group of such spirited men could so easily offer up their lives in her defense. She was devastated to have their lives made her responsibility. She could sense from her brief experience of this world that its rulers probably used death as the standard punishment to control everyone. Even before she sang for them, she sensed a feeling of doom for the Broken Ones. In a short time she had found herself liking Olivier and his fellow workers. It hurt her profoundly to know they could be about to die.

“Olivier, please do what you can to protect Samson and Rafael. Don’t try to die – try to live! Don’t worry about me. Let me speak to the captain.”

Olivier slowly stepped back to Raphael and Samson, leaving Fidelity by herself with the Fleet captain. The other soldiers now stood at whatever tactical positions they could find among the chairs and tables in the great room, their weapons ready.

“You humbled two Fleet officers,” the captain said. “We have witnesses, even recordings of it. Your actions were impressive but led to the brutal deaths of both officers.”

“I didn’t know that would happen,” she replied. “You hold me responsible?”

“I think you did what you had to do. I’m doing what I have to do. “

“What do you need to do?” she asked.

“Find out who you are,” the captain replied. “Arrest you for further questioning by my superiors.”

“Will you let the others go?” she asked.

“I can’t negotiate and I can’t guarantee what the Fleet will later do,” the captain said. “I can only insist that you accompany me away from this place as quickly as possible, before something bad can happen.”

The phrase lady in the mirror echoed from her memory, interfering further with her mental efforts to discover a safe decision. Most of the rest of her attention was captured by notices from a program running in yet another augment she didn’t know she had. It was measuring distances, assigning attack vectors, and adjusting probability indices for every potential combatant in the room, while also increasing her metabolism, heating her muscles, and sharpening her senses. The hammering of her heart signaled both fear and preparation.

When Olivier had spoken the phrase lady in the mirror she had seen everyone in the room stiffen in fear. This was her next decision: to learn why.

“Who is the lady in the mirror?” she asked Captain Sanda.

“You don’t want to know!” the captain said in an intense whisper.

Fidelity waited but the captain would not elaborate. Her next decision seemed dictated by the special combat augment, as it reached a state of planned preparedness and her body settled into hair-trigger anticipation. She was ready for an assault on the dozen soldiers nearest her. She couldn’t believe she would survive the fight. She could believe she would kill most of them. Strategies were unfolded for her that were complex, involving scores of bodies in motion, multiple chains of cause and effect. It took a supreme force of will to brake the imperative to launch an attack rather than react to one. So conscious of the explosion about to occur in her body, Fidelity could still strain to keep a conversation going, to stall for time in a forlorn hope for some miracle that would stop the violence. Fortunately, that was also a tactical option her combat augment allowed.

“What is your name?” she asked, intentionally trying to make her adversary more than just another anonymous fatality. She didn’t want to fight. All the death she would cause could never make her own death more honorable or less futile.

“My name?” the captain queried, adding confusion to his efforts to contain his anxiety and find some control of the situation. “Captain Kesre Sanda, Third Flight, Fleet Operations, Oz Station. What’s yours?” It didn’t look like he actually cared to know her name, but also only wanted to delay.

“I am Admiral Fidelity Demba, Union Navy.” This made the captain’s eyes widen in surprise. She continued. “I was unaware of the existence of this place – Oz – but I think many Navy officers may have come from here. I assume it is not within the Union.”

“You know you came here through a gate?” Captain Sanda asked.

“I assume that is what it was. It was our second such transfer. It brings a round piece of what you were standing on. If you are patient, Captain Sanda, we may depart by gate in the near future and save you from doing something dangerous.”

“Patience is not one of our traits,” the captain said, his anxiety seeming to decrease, “and danger is what we live for. Do you have any guess about why you are here? If not, I have to act. Yes, I will die, along with you and most of the rest of the people in this room.”

Fidelity sensed the truth of the Fleet captain’s words. She tried to match his calmness, even though the threat to Samson and Rafael terrified her. “I believe we are here because someone did not want Navy Commander Admiral Etrhnk to have us. To have me. I don’t think he cares about the boy and the old man. Your two young officers were simply unfortunate because they did not understand what I could do, and I did understand what they would do. I regret their deaths, and not simply because of what may now happen.”

The Lady in the Mirror

 

“You’re not old!”

“I feel old! Is this a marriage proposal? After all these years together, what does it matter?”

“I feel like you think we’re just friends, Ruby. But I love you. I’ve always loved you.”

“Why didn’t you ever say so?”

“I thought I did, perhaps not with words but…”

“Men! I’ve known how you felt about me for years. I could have made you confess, but I couldn’t bring myself to do it.”

“Because you didn’t really love me?”

“Because I did really love you. But…”

“I don’t understand.”

“Neither do I!”

“Is something wrong?”

“Something was always wrong with me! Something was always missing! I’m incomplete. I’ve lost something.”

“I still don’t understand.”

“I’m beginning to remember things, Harry, but it’s difficult to put them together. I think I’ve lived another life before this one, one in which I had a husband, and a daughter named Jamie. But I don’t know why I should have even received rejuvenation, because I don’t remember ever paying my debt to the Mnro Clinic. And why do I suddenly remember these vital things, things I should never have forgot, things that, if I chose to forget them, I shouldn’t ever remember?”

“I knew you would eventually remember him.”

“Who? What are you saying?”

“I’m saying you belonged to someone that no one should ever forget.”

“You know who he was? Why? How long have you known?”

“Always, Ruby. I’ve always been your guardian, protecting you until his return. For most of that time I’ve been in love with his wife, so I couldn’t tell you I loved you. But we’ve grown old together, shared an entire lifetime, and I don’t believe he’s alive anymore. I never doubted he would return, but surely it’s been too long! So, I now put in my bid for you, my last small chance for happiness, my last chance to make you happy.”

“But you know who he was? Tell me! Tell me, Harry! I can’t remember! I’ve spent months trying to hold onto these images and snippets of dialog leaking out of my brain, and he’s always there, just out of sight, and I can’t see his face or hear his name!”

“I can’t, Ruby!”

“Can’t, or won’t? Harry, you’re hurting me! This is tearing me apart! I think it was always there, just under my conscious thought, driving me to sing, keeping me from staying sober.”

“I’ll lose you if I tell you, Ruby!”

“You’ve already lost me, Harry!”

“Ruby, you don’t understand! It isn’t just me! If I give him back to you, she will just take him away again. Ruby? Where are you going?”

“Away! Don’t try to follow me!”

He opened his eyes and saw her as a blur. He blinked his eyes and tears rolled down his dark face. Before he could clearly see her, she walked up to him and put her arms around him. Her hat fell off. A man picked it off the floor and held it, and Pan saw him clearer as the tears abated in his eyes. The man was R K! Pan looked down on the pale bald head of the woman holding tightly to his body. “Who are you?” he wondered.

She leaned away from him without releasing him and smiled up at him. She raised a hand and touched his face, touched the dampness, brought her hand to her mouth, tasted the wetness on her fingertips. She released him, took a step backward, stumbled and sat down hard on the floor. She sat there for several moments, eyes closed, bald head bowed, and breathing hard.

Pan looked over at Ramadhal, questioningly. “Pan, this lady is Aylis Mnro,” Ramadhal responded. “At least, I think she is! I don’t understand what she does.”

Pan knelt down in front of the pale woman and waited for her to talk to him. He would be astonished to meet the famous woman at this moment of his life, if greater internal events did not prevent astonishment. He could not even form the ideas that should make him ask questions. He could only wait for the answers to make themselves apparent.

“She says she’s the first wife of your father,” Ramadhal offered.

“My father?”

“Setek-Ren!” The name exploded from Aylis Mnro. She smiled at Pan, her face flushed pink. “Setek-Ren! Your father was Setek-Ren! My husband was Setek-Ren!”

= = =

“They’re not coming back,” Mai said to Horss. “Let’s go. It’s been too long and I’m hungry.”

“You go,” he said. “Send me some food.”

She was still with him. He didn’t know why she stayed with him but it pleased him. It was not something his ego required; he simply enjoyed her presence, even if she did try to treat him as a youth. It was hard to believe she was almost a century older than he was.

“Why would they come back here?” she asked.

“Just a hunch. It’s damned hard to compute transmat addresses and this other device must be at least as difficult.”

“Earth does move through space,” Mai said. “The address will always change.”

“I figure the change is easier to compute than a completely new address,” Horss said.

“Fine! Stay! I’ve got work to do! The sun is up on the morning of the Mother Earth Opera and tonight the place will be a riot! Thank God, it’s the last one of these I ever put myself through!”

Mai jumped back, pushed by the arrival warning field of a transmat. Pan appeared in the living room of Daidaunkh’s dark apartment.

“Doctor Mnro was successful,” Pan announced somberly.

“Welcome back, sir,” Horss greeted.

“Captain. Mai. Have you camped here for long?” Pan seemed less than happy to be away from Etrhnk.

“Long enough for Mai,” Horss answered. “Do you know anything about the admiral?”

“All I know is that she’s beyond Etrhnk’s reach.”

“Dead?” Horss was unhappy at the possibility. “And Samson?”

“You can stop waiting for them here. Why don’t both of you come back with me?”

“Let me show you something in the floor here,” Horss said.

“I’ve seen it,” Pan said.

“You know what it means?”

“I don’t know the status of security in Daidaunkh’s apartment. We shouldn’t say more. Let’s go.”

“I’m staying,” Horss said.

= = =

The woman who wore a straw hat stood up as Mai and Pan entered the main room of Pan’s apartment. That she left Jon Horss alone in Daidaunkh’s apartment bothered Mai, worried her, and even aggravated her! She was thus preoccupied in thought when she needed to understand who the woman was who now approached her with such a warm smile. Mai accepted the woman’s hands into hers, feeling she had no choice in the matter. She then realized who the woman was, even though she looked too young.

“Doctor Mnro?” Mai queried.

“Sugai Mai! Please call me Aylis! What’s this about you taking a maternity leave? In this part of the Union you need a husband for that, or else the math doesn’t fit the law.”

“I’ll be looking for a husband,” she reluctantly offered, blushing.

“So, it isn’t maternity leave. It’s a hunting trip. What about the Navy captain? Did he escape?”

“You’re embarrassing me!” Mai wouldn’t have tolerated such treatment from anyone else, but Aylis Mnro always treated her like a… a daughter? Mai shook her head, as if that would throw Jon Horss out of her mind and clear her mental machinery to defend herself against Aylis Mnro.

Mnro seemed to sense her disquiet and she restrained herself. “I’m sorry, Mai! I’ve just made a visit to Admiral Etrhnk. Then I’m reunited with Pan. My adopted son, so to speak. Then I remembered my husband’s name. Oh, and did I mention I’ve been asleep for two centuries and have just awakened, only to be inducted into the Navy? I’m on special leave until my personal affairs are put in order.”

Mai studied Aylis Mnro, saw the wildness in her eyes, noted the strain in her voice, felt the slight tremor in the too-tight grip of her hands. What medical information she could detect with the probes built into her fingertips reinforced the overall impression of stress and agitation. It didn’t help that Mai was feeling much the same. Mnro’s last statement finally registered and left Mai dumbfounded.

“I think that was too much to throw at you all at once.” Mnro grimaced. “I probably should not be telling you anything. I want to tell you everything, but that would be dangerous for you. Yet, you already know too much to be safe. I wish I could be sure of not being overheard by Etrhnk.”

“This is Earth, where crazy people live,” Mai was able to say. “Entertainment miners constantly spy on us. We have very effective privacy systems, those of us who want them. Pan is your adopted son? That’s why you were so interested in him all these years!”

“I never officially adopted him. He was a grown man by the time I first met him. The memories, the memories!” Mnro stopped talking and closed her eyes.

“What’s wrong?” Mai asked.

“The person who managed the development of the Mnro Clinics wasn’t me,” Mnro said, breaking away with great effort from what drew her inward. “She looked like me, she had my memories, and she had my genes, but she wasn’t me. I slept while she did the hardest work and made the hardest decisions. Now it’s my turn again. All that the other Aylis Mnro did was but a prelude to what comes next. I will reap what she has sown, and that may be something very great, or it may be the end of me. I’m trying to take things one at a time. I have Pan back from Etrhnk. Now I wait to see if I get Demba back. If she doesn’t come back, all is for nothing.”

= = =

“This thing is ruining the floors,” Daidaunkh complained, gesturing at the gatekeeper.

“I identify with your concern,” Fred said. “I have overseen years of floor maintenance. Why does it concern you?”

“Same reason,” Daidaunkh admitted. “The Mnro Clinic likes clean floors. I – a prince of Rhyandh! – used to keep them clean, by order of your master, as you must remember. But the evidence of its passing leaves a trail for others to follow. Does it have a name?” Daidaunkh felt uneasy in the presence of the gatekeeper, not because it was obviously dangerous, but because it was obviously intelligent and thus even more dangerous. Pan’s old android butler also made him uneasy. He was sure Old Fred should not be able to act the way he was acting. It actually helped his nerves if they were not silent. It helped that they assured him they were trying to rescue the admiral and Rafael, and especially the boy. He would never forgive himself if he failed to help them.

“What’s your name, shorty?” Fred asked the amorphous alien.

“You speak to me?” the gatekeeper asked.

“You’re the shortest one here.”

“I have only a number, not a name.”

“Okay, what’s your number?”

“Ten.”

“Does that mean there are at least ten of you?”

“It may have been a serial number. There were many of us in the past. The Lady in the Mirror doesn’t offer much information to mere gatekeepers. I’ll answer to the name Shorty. Ten was never a likable number.”

“Who is the Lady in the Mirror?” Daidaunkh asked.

“It is she who, if you say ‘Lady in the Mirror,’ and she hears of it, she’ll kill you.”

“Why? What is she?”

“She must kill so that everyone will fear her. She rules this place. No one knows what she is or what her reasons are.”

“Have you ever seen her?”

“Yes. Most who see her die. I know she has killed other gatekeepers but I seem to be able to escape her wrath.”

“And who is Milly?”

“I have only theories and suspicions.”

“But she isn’t the Lady in the Mirror?”

“I hope not!”

Daidaunkh and Percival looked at each other. “I’d better take another of Fred’s pistols,” Daidaunkh said. “How about you take one, Percival?”

= = =

[What are you doing? Get out of here!]

[I can say the same to you!]

[Don’t get her mad! She’s a real stinker!]

[What’s she going to do, kill us?]

[Don’t let her slip past you!]

[Damn, she’s fast! What can we do now?]

= = =

Freddy/Fred and the others advanced along the wall of a corridor, trying to stay out of view through the open doorway ahead. “Our objective may be in that room,” Freddy whispered to Daidaunkh. “I see the backs of men in black uniforms.”

They reached the doorway and hid on either side of it.

“Yes, that is the Fleet,” Daidaunkh said quietly. “Too many of them. Who are all those men dressed in gray fatigues?”

On the other side of the doorway, Shorty extruded a part of him with an optical sensor on the end and bent it around the doorframe to look into the room. “Those are Broken Ones,” Shorty said. “They are ex-Fleet and work for the Fleet, mostly cleaning areas and moving freight. They appear to be armed also but I don’t know why. Do not shoot at the big window in the far wall or the other one in the ceiling. They are real windows, not imagers. That might break them and open the room to vacuum.”

“What about the Asimov Laws?” Daidaunkh asked Fred. “Are you going to kill people?”

“The Asimov Laws don’t pertain to me,” Freddy answered. “I’m an AMI, temporarily borrowing Fred’s machinery. Do you want another weapon?”

Daidaunkh took a third pistol.

“Go in shooting?” Freddy asked.

“That is a stupid plan,” Daidaunkh said with grim humor, “but I can’t think of a better one.”

/

Percival stared at the pistol he had got from the android and wondered if the one who had decided to cut off his hand was in the room.

“Wait,” Shorty ordered. “Something is happening.”

= = =

A flash of white light blinded her for an instant before her augmented eyes compensated. Fidelity took a step back as the phenomenon appeared in the center of the room between her and the Fleet captain. She was so fascinated by the disruption that only her combat augment kept her aware of the movements of the dozens of people in the room. Everyone had jerked or twitched at once, then all had stood quite still.

A large, silvery rectangle coalesced from the dazzling zone of visible energy. The perfect rectangle of pure light rotated slowly and made a loud hiss as though reacting with the air. Everyone in the room remained transfixed, letting Fidelity notice Daidaunkh and Pan’s android move into the open doorway behind the Fleet officers. They were armed with pistols. Another figure joined them and she recognized Percival, also armed with a pistol. A change in the rectangle of light drew her attention away, completely displacing her concerns and questions about the men and the android.

An image had appeared in the plane of light: a pale human woman, young, black-haired, with red lips, and whose eyes flickered between silver and black. Her body was almost abstract, restlessly changing color and pattern, not as real-seeming as the face. The mirror floated in the air as an image that was less substantial than a hologram, but Fidelity could feel a power in it that frightened her. She knew she was too close to it!

WHAT IS GOING ON HERE?” the image in the mirror demanded with theatrical malice, rotating away from Fidelity, but an identical image on the other side of the mirror angled into view. No, the tone of the voice was neither theatrical nor malicious but simply made complex and disquieting by harmonic overtones and undertones that plucked at multiple resonant frequencies. The mirror paused rotation, facing her. The black-silver eyes seemed to focus exactly on Fidelity.

WHO ARE YOU?” the young female image demanded.

“Admiral Fidelity Demba,” she replied quickly, while feeling her combat augment trying to factor in this new entity by polling other augments that apparently had connections to her eyes and possibly to other kinds of sensors in her body. “Who are you?” she asked. She wanted to say: “What are you?”

“I AM THE LADY IN THE MIRROR,” the dominating female voice intoned.

Fidelity could hardly pull her gaze from the phenomenon to view data that was forced onto the display in her eyes. The ocular display was filled with scientific jargon but ended with a simple directive: DO NOT TOUCH! This was what everyone had feared when Olivier earlier spoke its name!

NAVY ADMIRAL,” the image addressed her, “WHY ARE YOU HERE?”

“I think I needed to meet you,” Fidelity replied.

ALL WHO MEET ME DIE!” the voice thundered, shaking the air, shaking everyone and everything. Then, almost conversationally, it said, “I LIKE THE YELLOW DRESS. ARE WE THE ONLY FEMALES IN THE ROOM?”

Fidelity felt something bump into her legs and discovered Samson clinging to her dress, trying to keep upright. She dared not move her eyes from the Lady in the Mirror.

BEHOLD, A CHILD,” the Lady said, any subtlety of tone obscured by the fear-inducing harmonics of her voice. “AND AN OLD MAN,” she added.

Fidelity’s ocular display now warned her of a drop in air pressure in the room and she could almost feel a breeze flowing past her toward the mirror. Rafael had apparently let Samson break away from him and had followed him to her. Samson stayed behind her, afraid to be with her, afraid not to.

“I THINK I KNOW THAT CHILD,” the Lady said. “TROUBLE MAKER!”

“Do you?” Fidelity quickly asked, sensing the importance of the statement. “Who is he? Where are his parents?”

I ASK THE QUESTIONS!” the Lady thundered. “WHY DO YOU HAVE HIM?”

“I believe he was given to me by someone named Milly. Do you know who Milly is?”

The mirror rotated quickly and Fidelity reacted more quickly, moving backward, pushing Samson and Rafael away. The edge of the mirror swung very close to her, and she could feel a ripping kind of force tugging at her. The mirror stopped again and Fidelity dared to take a moment to help Samson, while Olivier pulled Rafael to his feet. “Get them away from here!” she pleaded to Olivier.

SHUT UP!” the Lady ordered, the phrase spoken in the colloquial Twenglish she had used from the beginning. “TIME TO DIE!”

The mirror expanded left and right and started to move. Those closest to the lethal plane of the mirror could only run before its rotation, dodging furniture that exploded into nothingness at its touch. Men fell over each other in the mad scramble and parts of them were cut away from reality, leaving bloody fragments on the floor, clothed in pieces of black uniforms or in gray coveralls.

Fidelity glimpsed Olivier and friends pulling Samson and Rafael away from the zone of carnage, and away from her. The mirror seemed to follow her, until she was forced to jump to a table and from there to vault over the top of the silvery wall of death, putting her on its receding side. She was now on the side of the room where Daidaunkh and Fred had stood in the doorway. She followed the escaping Fleet soldiers through the doorway, where Daidaunkh grabbed her arm as she passed, drawing her out of the flow. More Fleet and some broken ones ran past, ignoring them.

“Where did Rafael go?” Daidaunkh asked, peeking back into the bedlam in the room. “What is that?”

“The broken ones took them to safety, I hope,” Fidelity replied. “We need to get behind some vacuum locks. The Lady could decide to push into the walls and kill everyone else.”

“Stay right here!” a high-pitched voice that seemed familiar to Fidelity ordered. She immediately recognized the sparkling material of the gatekeeper across the doorway from her! “She’s going to jump!” it warned. “There!”

The mirror appeared just down the hallway from them, annihilating the walls before she became smaller, rotating faster. Fidelity could feel an actual breeze now flowing from the observation room, through to the spinning mirror in the hallway, which now began to move toward them in small jerks as the plane of destruction tapped the walls.

“I have a gate!” the gatekeeper squeaked. It rolled to the center of the hallway. “Get close to me!” They huddled as close to the hot mass of the gatekeeper as they could, then darkness instantly enveloped them.

The air smelled dusty, earthy, and stars winked on in the sky as eyes adjusted to the change. Fidelity’s eyes sampled the full spectrum and outlined the tall structure of the African Space Elevator.

“What now, Shorty?” Daidaunkh inquired. “Can it follow us here?”

“Indeed, she can,” the gatekeeper replied. “Who stays and who returns?”

“I can’t leave Samson and Rafael in Oz!” Fidelity declared.

“And I can’t play tag with Mama with this many passengers!” Shorty complained. “You will burn yourselves hugging me. Admiral, I’m sorry, but you’ll have to stay. I will attempt to locate and return your friends to you, but it will take some time. Who else stays on Earth?”

“Percival?” Daidaunkh questioned. “Fred?”

“I… I don’t know!” Percival said. “No! I must go back! I can help!”

“We don’t have much time,” Shorty warned. “Step away now or say good-bye to the admiral.”

Fidelity walked a short distance away. A faint pop caused by unequal air pressure sounded before she could turn around. Pan’s android servant, Old Fred, had stayed with her. Her short-range transceiver augment performed a security handshake with her yacht, which was not far away. Using the yacht’s transmat, she winked Fred and herself aboard. Then she looked for the only other person for whom she was responsible, hoping Jon Horss was still on Earth.

The Mother Earth Opera

 

“Where are we?” the android inquired.

Despite her crowded thoughts, Fidelity wondered why Pan’s Old Fred would ask such a question. It must know the coordinates of their location from its navigational system. She knew them and she wasn’t – as far as she knew – an android. Any further definition of the location would be unnecessary for its purposes. “Daidaunkh’s apartment,” she replied. She saw a familiar person asleep on Daidaunkh’s sofa. Fidelity nudged Jon Horss and he came instantly awake.

“Where is he?” Horss asked.

His first words, and his immediate and honest concern for Samson made her feel sick to give him the bad news. “I lost him.”

He sat up, then stood up. He gave a quick glance of greeting to the android, indicating he was familiar with it. “What happened to him? Where were you? Is Samson still…?”

“We need to keep moving.” She knew it would do nothing more than delay another attempt by Etrhnk to capture her. Or another attempt by the Lady in the Mirror to annihilate her. Her yacht hovered invisibly on the roof of the apartment building. It couldn’t be much longer before Etrhnk decided to find it. The flagship must have some capability for sensing a stealthy yacht. It didn’t seem worthwhile to even care. Who knew what search capabilities the Lady in the Mirror possessed, when death could be summoned by simply speaking a Twenglish phrase.

An irrational urge to walk immediately tugged at her. Walk? She was too tired to walk, yet some part of her needed to walk! She was too tired to think, yet she needed to think! She was too tired to feel, but she could not stop feeling! She felt a measure of rage, that she could do nothing at all to save Samson and Rafael. And now, out of nowhere, had come perhaps another of those buried memory-bombs, waiting to explode and reveal yet more mystery to confound her and to further redefine who she was.

“I’m sorry,” she apologized, “but something is happening inside me now and I need to walk and I need to think. Perhaps Old Fred can tell you what has been happening. I have to go.” She headed for the door of Daidaunkh’s apartment.

Why is this happening to you?” Horss wondered, hurrying to follow her..

“I don’t know!” she answered.

“Business as usual, then,” Horss said. “I’ll tag along. You coming, Freddy?”

“Damn right!” Freddy replied.

Her memory explosion was anticlimactic when it came, for it was merely an old but obviously corrupted map of the nearby area in her data augment that was strangely brought to her attention, as though someone else had performed a search in her data. The corruption seemed arbitrary, like a child had scribbled on the map, obscuring certain places and many labels. She checked her data augment for another map of the same area but found none; yet there were maps of other nearby areas of similar age. Those maps appeared free of obvious errors. Why was this one damaged?

She was irritated. All she really wanted to do was cry herself to sleep worrying about Samson and Rafael, and even Daidaunkh. She looked at Jon Horss. She looked at Old Fred. Maybe she needed to stop thinking about maps for a moment and let her subconscious play with the problem.

“We’re waiting,” Jon said.

“It’s hot!” she complained. “I really don’t want to perspire again in this dress. But it seems I must.”

They exited Daidaunkh’s apartment and headed for the stairwell.

“Where have you been?” Jon asked. “We found your note. Then I heard that Freddy and the monster from the space elevator had disappeared, taking quite a few pistols with them.”

“We’ve all been to a place called Oz,” she answered. “Why were you here in Daidaunkh’s apartment?”

“Just a hunch you might come back here, since I think you came here by a gate from somewhere in the Arctic. Am I crazy to think it was a gate? Where is Oz? Why is that name familiar?”

“It is the name of a city in early American fantasy literature. Except for the color green, it wasn’t a suitable name for the place. They also called it the Big Ball. Its most important and most terrible feature was a military force called the Fleet. No, its most important feature was an entity called the Lady in the Mirror. Oh!” She stopped talking as a piece of the puzzle in her mind had just fallen into place.

\

Horss and Freddy followed the admiral down stairs and out of the building, where she began walking fast, without complaint of the heat. After some minutes of quiet, and with no immediate progress in the admiral’s quest becoming apparent, Horss questioned Freddy about Oz.

“The Lady in the Mirror was a bright plane of destructive energy of some kind,” Freddy explained, “upon which was the image of a woman. The plane of energy could disintegrate anything it touched, and it tried to kill Mother, I mean Admiral Demba. But she leaped over it and found us in the hallway. Then it jumped into the hallway and came after us and Shorty had to bring us to Earth to escape. Admiral Demba had to stay on Earth because there were too many of us for Shorty to transport, and I stayed here, too. Shorty said he would try to find Samson and Rafael. Daidaunkh and Percival went back with Shorty to help. But they were still trying to keep away from the Lady in the Mirror, so it may take a while for them to find Samson and Rafael.”

Horss shook his head after the barrage of information and began his attempt to question Freddy to clarify what he had said, and also to talk of other recent developments while they accompanied the admiral.

/

Fidelity slowed her pace, starting to feel frustrated by the tedious use of the map, still unsure if the slow progress was actually progress. She caught the word mother that Old Fred had spoken, and after a few more moments it made her lose concentration. She tried to reset her mind while walking slower and slower.

The afternoon sun pushed waves of heat off broken windows and ancient façades covered with grime and tenacious plant life. The sea breeze barely penetrated the empty urban canyons to lift the heat from time to time.

She listened to Jon and Old Fred talk, becoming suspicious of how human-like the android spoke. She must not have paid enough attention to the android in her brief time with it at Pan’s apartment, because now it seemed different.

Then she learned of Pan’s release from Etrhnk and of the appearance of Aylis Mnro.

Aylis Mnro! The sad dream of the dark woman in the New Orleans L4 park, the band music, the daughter she had lost! Now she realized who the dark woman in the park was, the woman in more than one of her strange visions, the woman who took Jamie away from her! The woman who made her sing at a funeral. Aylis Mnro? Really? The woman… the friend… the friend of yet some other person she once was? How long ago? She almost began another vision from that hidden place within her but Fred’s next sentence stopped her. She had already stopped walking, frozen in place by simple and powerful thoughts.

“I’m sure Daidaunkh and Shorty will be successful, Mother. They will find Samson!”

Fidelity wiped tears, along with perspiration, from her face, and looked up at Fred’s face with a questioning frown. “Fred? What are you saying?”

“Shorty is very good at gates. And-”

“You called me mother, didn’t you?”

“I’m Baby, Admiral! I’m here, inside Fred! We’re sharing a great adventure!”

Fidelity knew without further proof the android was Baby, or contained Baby. She remained shocked, and was now also worried. “How did you do that?”

“There was a disembodied voice who talked to me when I tried to leave the ship. It was Samson’s Milly. She was very peculiar, but she helped me.”

It was Baby who risked his life to rescue her from Oz! She lost Samson. She lost Rafael. Did she have the capacity to suffer the loss of Baby? How could she protect everyone she loved? Yes, she did love them! How could she presume to command a mission that would jeopardize the lives of thousands of people? All of this responsibility was piled upon her while she tried to make sense of painful reports from possible – maybe probable – previous lives, while she was blown apart by powerful dreams or memories, while she tried to pull herself back together as one new, rational person!

“Do you have redundancy, Baby?” she asked worriedly.

“I knew you would ask me that.”

“Do you?”

“Some.”

She shook her head, stopped, and put a hand on the android’s arm. “I don’t want to lose you, Baby! You probably don’t understand how miraculous you are and how wonderful you have made me feel. You can’t know how precious you are to me. If this android dies with you inside him, what do you lose?”

“I should retain at least the germ of sentience if I lose this part of me. I can rebuild myself. I just won’t remember much of this.”

“In other words, you committed most of your personality to this android! You left little more than a template in the ship! You didn’t do a backup? Baby, please be careful!”

“Call me Freddy, Mother. I’ll call you Admiral when we’re not alone. I’ll try to be careful, but we spontaneous AMI’s don’t live very long anyway, do we?”

“Don’t think about statistics! Think about living!” She stopped and regarded him intently, with both worry and warmth. “I’m sorry. I’ve got to stop talking. I’ve got something to do, before Etrhnk discovers I’m back. Apparently there was a second reason why I brought Captain Horss to Earth.”

Fidelity resumed her almost aimless trek, while also urging her mind to discover why she knew Aylis Mnro. The idea itself was too much distraction to let the memory free. How could she possibly know Aylis Mnro? That person was probably the single most important person in human history!

“Is something wrong, Admiral?” Horss asked.

“I don’t know,” she responded tiredly, “but there usually is!”

How could she protect… everyone she loved? Even Aylis Mnro?

Aylis Mnro…

And finally the memory came.

 

“Do you remember, Zakiya?”

“I remember,” Fidelity replied.

She was speaking to this woman as an equal, and this woman was the most famous and most honored person who had ever lived! Aylis Mnro had brought practical immortality to the average person. But now Fidelity remembered who she really was, who they both were, and it was like the universe had turned inside-out!

“Please, don’t hate me!” Aylis begged. “We have so little time together in full knowledge of who we are and who we were! God willing, we’ll meet again and know who we are again, but this could also be the last time we see each other!”

She could see herself remembering: memories within memories, dreams within dreams. She was sure Aylis spoke those words before. How many times? How many years ago? The images of the past escaped and burned into her mind, and killed her. The person she once was, long ago, waved at her from across the abyss of time: farewell, or until we meet again? The memory inside a memory stopped and its parent continued.

“It’s so very difficult, Aylis! The memories aren’t faded by time! They hit me hard and fresh and I’m terribly wounded! All I ever wanted was simply to be a good mother!”

“And who would you tell Jamie was her father? How would you describe him to her? How would Alex ever share Jamie’s childhood with you? It isn’t fair either to Alex or to Jamie. Don’t you think that’s selfish of you, Zakiya?”

She sat down under the apricot tree and hugged her knees. She knew the truth when she heard it. She was selfish. She looked up at the crescent Earth which shone above the rim of the crater. She looked over at the best friend she had ever had. At least Aylis had never abandoned her, as Alex had.

Alex! How many times in her long life had she heard that name and never knew it belonged to her husband? The momentary joy of this knowledge took away some of the pain, but not for long.

“I’m just tired and lonely, Aylis. I don’t know how you go on, although at least you have your son.”

“Don’t you remember?” Aylis replied. “I went to sleep. I’m not here any longer, just this imitation of me. That’s how I can be so cruel, although it still isn’t easy. Aylis loves you very much. Never forget that.”

“But I will forget, won’t I? What’s that?”

Aylis was holding some piece of fabric, twisting it and pulling it between her hands. She held it by the edge in her fingers, showing it was a container. She opened the silvery bag and pulled forth two objects and placed them on the ground next to Zakiya. They were spectacular artifacts of deep color purity, small as hen’s eggs, mysterious beyond understanding. She picked one up and instantly verified what her eyes had already told her. The object lacked mass and weight, yet it felt absolutely solid in her hand.

“I remember them!” She was assaulted by a memory that rushed into her from very far in the past: a memory within a memory within a memory, gaining strength with each nested iteration. These pieces of magic came into her possession the final time she touched him. Alex!

“You take one,” Aylis said.

“Yes, that would be logical,” Zakiya said.

“Why did you stop?” Freddy inquired.

/

Horss had given up hope of further enlightenment. He was still trying to fit his imagination around the wild tale Fred – Freddy – told him, of gatekeepers and barbarians in black uniforms, and a woman in a mirror who disintegrated people and anything she touched.

The admiral didn’t respond for several minutes, standing with her eyes closed. Horss could almost feel the pressure of emotions she struggled to contain. He now understood how strongly she was suffering from intense flashbacks, similar to what Pan had experienced.

She finally turned away from them and held her face in her hands. They waited. Freddy put a hand lightly on her shoulder. She turned around then and put her arms around Freddy. Freddy encircled her with Fred’s arms and gently held her. Horss was sympathetic, perhaps embarrassed, and impatient for the sentiment to end.

“I just remembered why I came to Earth,” she said. “I just remembered something that has made me very emotional. I’m so tired I can’t control myself.”

“Is control necessary, Mother? If you had control, would I be deprived of the joy of embracing you?”

She laughed and wiped her face. “It feels so strange to hear you call me mother!”

“Feels pretty weird to me, too,” Horss muttered.

He received a squeeze of his arm from the admiral and suppressed an urge to react, not knowing how he should react. He tried to understand what the small but important gesture meant to him. If what Freddy told him about the fantastic space city was real and true, then everything had to change yet again. His life was spinning and spinning, with no hope of a steady direction.

/

Fidelity recovered her dignity and some of her control. She resumed her search. The corrupted map was a clue, perhaps a guide. She had guessed at a starting point on the map that was nearby and led Horss and Freddy there. Street signs and building numbers were incorrect, even though this map position seemed intact. After several more trials she began to see a pattern, even though the logic of it remained opaque. She just knew – or remembered – what the map was trying to tell her. The obviously corrupted areas were a guide to some part of the not-obviously corrupted urban features. Somewhere on the map would be a single location that was actually where it was supposed to be.

Finally, after two hours of walking in the heat and humidity, Fidelity stopped in the middle of a wide avenue. She backed away from the center of the broken pavement and came to stand on a weed-invaded sidewalk. She looked across the boulevard at a building whose slick marble face and grimy windows had escaped much of the flora that sprouted on other structures.

She was exhausted.

The number on the building matched that of the map in her head. She had no idea how she had found it, unless she had been working the puzzle on a subconscious level.

She could picture the glorious artifact in her mind and, this close to it, she could feel where it might be.

“A bank,” Freddy said.

“How did you know?” she wondered, starting across the avenue.

“Old Fred is in here with me and he knows a lot.”

/

Horss followed Fidelity and Freddy to the entrance. The admiral pushed on the glass door, which resisted but wasn’t locked. Freddy pushed it open far enough for them to enter. The dusty lobby was bare of furnishings. The admiral led them to the back of the lobby. They passed through a vault-like doorway. Beyond lay a dim hallway with several doorways on one side along its length. The doorways with missing doors disclosed small rooms, each with a built-in desk. On the opposite side of the dark hallway was a larger doorway with a massive steel frame. She led them down the hallway and through the larger doorway.

The room was dark but Horss had a handlight and all of them had augmented vision. The metal rectangles of thousands of small doors, most of them open, filled two walls of the room. Small compartments rose to a person’s height, while large ones formed rows down to the floor. Dust and cobwebs filled every opening in the walls.

“That one,” she said thoughtfully.

“Which one?” Freddy asked.

She pointed to one of the largest floor-level doors.

“One of the few that appear locked. Shall I open it?”

“Please.”

Freddy ripped an open door from another box. He used the door as a hammer to loosen the admiral’s door. Horss had never seen an android apply such force. As an expression of will, it gave him pause to understand what a spontaneous AMI represented. Freddy bullied the door open and pulled out the metal box from within. It was empty.

“Beneath the floor,” the admiral suggested.

Freddy stuck his hand into the opening and rapped with his knuckles. It sounded hollow beneath the metal floor of the chamber. He struck the floor plate hard enough to raise a warped edge, then pried up the edge. He groped in the cavity beneath the metal and pulled forth a sack made of a silver fabric. He handed it to the admiral. She looked inside the bag, her hands trembling.

“It’s all true!” she declared with a sigh. “They’re real memories and I’m so many different people!”

“What’s in the bag, Admiral?” Horss asked.

Light leaked between her fingers as she pulled forth an object that just filled her hand. She opened her fingers and held it on her palm for Horss and Freddy to see. Its surface patterns of pure color suggested purpose beyond imagining. Its beauty and mystery all but enslaved the senses, casting the rest of reality into darkness. It appeared to dance upon her shaky palm as if gravity could not pull it firmly to her hand.

“It looks like the cryptikon!” Horss declared. He had never seen the cryptikon in the Essiin Museum – the only one believed to exist. He had studied images of it and they had barely hinted at what he now experienced. The device seemed made of solidified light, with no hint of how it was assembled. He suffered this almost ecstatic revelation for only an instant, before another impossibility assaulted his senses.

Behind them – and between them and the only exit – a rectangle of blazing-white light emerged from nothingness, banishing the darkness of the bank vault, even dimming the beautiful glow of the cryptikon. The sharply-delineated plane, so impossibly thin it appeared to exist two-dimensionally, rotated slowly with a hissing noise. Powerful, low-frequency sound waves shook dust from the ceiling and walls. It was so close to them that Horss could feel it. Waves of power modulated the dust in the air and sent rude fingers of pressure through his clothing and across his body. A young woman’s image, hyper-real in sharpness and in color, appeared as though embossed deeply in the silvery plane.

Horss could not believe this was a mere image. He knew it was deadly without knowing how it could even exist. He knew the Lady in the Mirror from Freddy’s description, and he knew Freddy hadn’t used nearly enough adjectives.

YOU CANNOT HIDE FROM ME!” the Lady roared at them, then moderated her volume. “WHAT IS THIS PLACE? WHY ARE YOU HERE?”

The admiral raised the cryptikon above her head, holding it between the tips of her thumb and one finger. The black and silver eyes of the Lady in the Mirror blinked as though they could see but not believe what they saw. Torturous pain deformed the pale face. The red lips parted, and an almost lethal wail of agony erupted from the image.

THAT’S HOW IT ALL BEGAN!” the Lady cried, nearly deafening them.

The mirror resumed rotation, pivoting at its center. To one side it ate through rows of metal boxes with a screaming sound and a flare of actinic light. To the other side it disintegrated a wall. The crescendo of destruction raged toward them in a blinding glare as the mirror pivoted through its arc. Pieces of ceiling fell around them. Dust swirled and spun into vortices that danced into the plane of death, making sprays of microscopic blinding explosions.

Horss was too stunned by this nightmare of annihilation to put his final thoughts in order. His urge was to pull the admiral behind him, to at least make the gesture to protect her. She prevented that by stepping toward the mirror, even as Horss and Freddy tried to stay away from the mirror’s direction of rotation.

The admiral held the cryptikon before her in her fingertips. As it touched the advancing wall of blinding death, the cryptikon stuck to it and stopped it.

The Lady in the Mirror wailed again, the deafening tone fading as the lethal plane of light darkened and vanished.

The egg floated free and bright in the dusty gloom as the admiral released it and staggered back.

Freddy retrieved the artifact from the air. He looked at the cryptikon, then surveyed the destruction around them. “I was unprepared to die!”

Horss almost laughed, his fear having arrived too late to do more than release the trapped air from his lungs. The Lady in the Mirror had appeared too briefly to prove him a coward, but he knew he would feel the delayed shock for the rest of his life.

“Is there a safe place to stay near here?” the admiral asked as though immune to such terror. “Or we can wink to the yacht. I need to rest.”

= = =

“That was very sweet of you, Alex. I hesitate to say it, but it felt romantic to me.”

“I hesitated to do it, Zakiya. I didn’t know if you would want that.”

“I did want it! It was wonderful! But also confusing. I don’t fully understand how you feel about me.”

“How many times have I held your hand lately?”

“Like an old friend concerned for my safety?”

“I love you, Zakiya! Haven’t I said it enough times?”

“It still feels unreal! I love you! I desperately want to believe you love me!”

“This isn’t just a marriage of convenience, Zakiya. I’m sorry if the situation has made it seem that way. I’m sorry if I haven’t expressed myself adequately toward you. You may not imagine how very important you are to me, especially now, and I don’t mean just for the matters of my estate.”

“Then please adequately explain yourself to me, Alex.”

“It’s difficult. When you’re a captain, you’re not wise to allow – or to express – certain feelings for those under your command. Did I love you anyway? I know I did. I was afraid to approach you, knowing it would change too many things, including the special quality of the crew. I tried to make myself feel about you the way I felt about Koji or Setek. You were someone I could trust completely, someone who saw me as a friend as much as a captain.”

“How romantic.”

“I told you it would be difficult to explain.”

“You’ve explained it well enough, Alex.”

“If you see it as a mistake on my part, Zakiya, I ask forgiveness.”

“I’m sorry, but I have to know: Fidelity, the woman you married.”

“I would have married you before Fidelity, before I ever knew her. But you departed so quickly after the last voyage! I lost confidence in how I thought you might feel about me. I learned to love Fidelity with all my heart and almost fell apart when I lost her. Marriage is a sacred commitment. If I find her still alive, we’ll deal with my commitments as honestly as possible. I’ve always loved you, nobly if not perfectly romantically.”

“Don’t hang your head that way, Alex. I confess I’ve had a lifetime of longing for you. I’m so proud to be your wife that I can hardly believe it’s true. It was a beautiful wedding, very thoughtfully done. It was the first time I saw Pat cry since he broke that bottle of ancient scotch.”

They embraced for a long time.

“Are those your tears or mine?” he asked.

“Ours. I want to change the plan. I want to go with you.”

“I don’t think I could be effective, knowing a mistake on my part could make me lose you.”

“All those years on the Frontier. All those impossible situations. You could have lost all of us. I believe in you! You have a magic no one else possesses. I could be useful. Damn it! It’s so unfair, to wait my whole life to be your wife, and then lose you!”

“Don’t you think I’m coming back? Don’t you really believe in my magic?”

Time telescopes cruelly to the end of the dream, to the last kiss salted by tears, to the terrible, crushing emotion of loss, and the last glimpse of four friends, one of them a husband. “I’ll love you forever,” she said to a closed door that might never reopen. She turned away from it to face a long, empty future. She had only a silver bag in her hand, containing utter magic, to make her stand up straight and carry on; yet, it was still miserable proof that a future remained to be lived.

She awoke at the touch on her bare shoulder. Her clenched fist pulled the silver sack from under her as her eyes focused on the face above her: Jon Horss. She saw his concern. She began to react to the powerful memory she had just experienced. The details had cruelly faded, but not the emotion. Tears washed into her eyes and streaked her face. She couldn’t be an admiral, not an admiral Horss would respect. All she could do was be his friend. She forced herself to speak.

“How are you, Jon?” She sat up. She wiped her tears without feeling ashamed.

“Fantastic.” He replied in Twenglish, but his voice had the same quality of concern as his gray eyes. “What’s wrong?”

She leaned back against the sofa on which she’d slept for six hours and stared at the silver sack in her hand. “Memories of someone I lost a long time ago, Jon. Has Samson returned? Rafael?”

Horss said a Twenglish word Fidelity knew to be mild profanity. “No sign of them yet. It isn’t fair! He’s just a child!”

A woman of East Asian descent entered the room, came to Horss, and took his hand. It seemed Horss had wasted no time in her absence. The woman looked at Fidelity gravely and bowed. “Sugai Mai. Mnro Clinic. Is there no hope of the child’s safe return, Admiral? Rafael? Daidaunkh?”

“I’m not optimistic.” She tried to stop her tears. She could see she was upsetting the woman. Jon Horss was also made uncomfortable by her lack of control. She suspected she would have little control over her emotions for a long time. The memories were too powerful, especially now that she knew they were her memories. “No further visits by the Lady in the Mirror,” she assumed.

“No,” Horss answered. “And also no attempt by Etrhnk to take you by transmat.”

Fidelity leaned forward, elbows on knees, and dangled the silver pouch from its simple drawstring. “Possibly because of this. I seem to recall that it prevents transmat referencing.”

“A bonus miracle,” Horss remarked.

“Jon,” she spoke in her emotion-roughened voice and tried to clear her throat, “I’m very happy to see you in apparent good health. Please believe me, I never intended to do what I did to you. I didn’t know I could!”

“Kill me? The news of my death was greatly exaggerated, Admiral. I’m afraid I no longer meet your criteria for a ship captain, but I’m willing to go with you in whatever capacity I can do best.”

“I wish I hadn’t hurt you. I do still need you. How badly were you affected?”

“I’m strange now! I’ll try to be less strange. We’re talking as though we still have a ship to sail. Is it all over? Are we no longer Navy officers?”

“Etrhnk is waiting to hear you sing,” a different voice spoke.

Fidelity looked beyond Horss and Mai to the bald woman in the doorway to Mai’s office. The woman approached, passing by Horss and touching his arm. Mai stood aside and was also touched by her. She looked at each of them but her attention remained on Fidelity. Her blue eyes were filmed with tears and her mouth was straining to contain what might escape gracelessly. “Do you remember me, Zakiya?”

“I… remember.” Fidelity spoke slowly, recognition reaching certainty at the last syllable. “Which one are you?” Fidelity asked, looking up at this creature of myth and legend and seeing an old friend who only wanted that they be friends again. It hurt, that she could call up the memory at will now, of the afternoon in the park, with Jamie playing on the green grass while she and Aylis sat on a bench anguishing over a distant future. She could now look upon the face of her young daughter. She could remember Jamie’s face! She could remember Aylis’s dark face on that terrible day and match it to the pale face she now saw. Even the calamity of emotion was similar in amplitude but perhaps now more positive.

“I’ve been asleep for a long time, Zakiya,” Aylis said. “I woke up. This is me.”

The sound of the name – Zakiya: her real name – struck a great chord in the symphony of her existence. Zakiya! She realized she had heard it before in her visions but it had refused to stick with her. The chord died quickly in her heart, leaving her real name meaning less to her. It belonged to another person. She might take it up again but it was just a name. It was not as important a name as Jamie.

“It hurts, Aylis. Losing Jamie. It still hurts!”

“I know! I’m sorry! My God, Zakiya! We’re here, we’re alive, we can remember! You have to let me hold you!”

Aylis held her arms open and stood before Fidelity with an imploring look on her face. Fidelity could see through her own blurry eyes that Aylis was young again and her face was wrecked by powerful feelings. The anger flowed out of her with her tears. She remembered an old familiar feeling, a feeling of belonging with Aylis, a feeling of sisterhood and of deepest friendship. She resented it and resisted it for a moment, but it grew in strength and she became helpless to deny it. It was a feeling that belonged with the name Zakiya, and she reluctantly gave way to the odd feeling of losing her old – but newer – identity.

Fidelity was the name of a woman Alex had married long after the crew of the Frontier disbanded. She never knew her well and had always envied her, yet had for some reason adopted her name years after she disappeared on the Titanic. Aylis Mnro only knew Fidelity as Zakiya, and that made it certain she would take her real name back.

The chasm of centuries-apart closed and the ache of motherhood-denied melted away. She arose and took two steps forward. Aylis rushed to close the gap, gathered her within her arms, and hugged. Zakiya returned the pressure. They held each other fiercely.

“Do you understand what is happening to us and to Pan?” Aylis asked.

“I’m beginning to see a pattern,” Fidelity-who-was-Zakiya said.

“Then you are one step ahead of me, Zakiya. I was doing crazy things and didn’t know why! I was scared!” Aylis paused and took something out of a pocket. “Do you have one of these? I seem to remember there were two.” Aylis opened her palm to show a small but vivid object. When she lowered her hand slightly, the ovoid object floated in the air. Mai gasped.

“Holy cow!” Horss exclaimed. “She’s got another one!”

It was another cryptikon. Zakiya-Fidelity produced hers from the silver bag.

“I thought there was only one!” Mai said, reaching for the floating artifact, trembling to grasp it.

“We now know of three,” Zakiya said, “and I believe there is at least one other. The Lady in the Mirror was quite upset at seeing it in my hand.”

“Who?” Aylis asked.

“Didn’t you tell them about the Lady in the Mirror, Jon?”

“They wouldn’t have believed me! I didn’t believe Freddy when he told me! I didn’t even believe it when she was trying to kill us!”

“Where have you been?” Aylis asked, displaying alarm and concern. Mai also turned her shocked expression toward Horss.

“Hasn’t Jon or Freddy told you about Oz, or the Big Ball?” Fidelity-Zakiya asked.

“That’s what they call it?” Aylis queried. “I didn’t believe it either!”

“A place of great beauty and great terror,” Zakiya-Fidelity said. “I had friends there, and enemies, including one who can appear anywhere and destroy almost anything. The Lady in the Mirror. I was separated from Samson and Rafael when Freddy and Daidaunkh rescued me. Daidaunkh stayed behind with the gatekeeper to try to find them.”

Zakiya described The Lady in the Mirror, with Horss adding a few more adjectives.

“We can’t continue?” Aylis asked. “What will we do?”

“Keep moving,” Zakiya said. “Pretend we still have a chance. The cryptikons provide some amount of protection.”

“Who is Zakiya?” Mai asked, giving the cryptikon back to Aylis.

“My oldest friend,” Aylis said, touching Zakiya. “Also known as Fidelity Demba.”

“And Commodore Keshona,” Horss added. “And Ruby Reed.”

“Yes, I now remember Ruby Reed,” Aylis said. “Zakiya Muenda is her real name. We served together, back before the Navy existed. We were explorers.”

“But that was…” Mai started to say.

“Too long ago?” Aylis suggested.

“Deep Space Fleet,” Horss said. “I believe you! You are Aylis Mnro, aren’t you?”

“Would you then believe Zakiya and I served aboard the Frontier?”

“It was a real ship?” Horss asked, astonished.

“It was,” Aylis said, smiling at his reaction.

“And the captain?” he queried.

“A real person,” Aylis said, and nodded at Zakiya. “Her husband.”

“But…” Horss said.

She only half listened to them speak. Zakiya tried to fit herself to the name her mother gave her almost three centuries in the past. She didn’t fit it, not yet. She was a person with no name at all. All she knew at this moment was that she could sing, and that she had lost Samson.

= = =

Wearing the cleaned yellow dress given her by Rafael, Zakiya stood in the wings of the stage of the theater that contained the Mother Earth Opera production, listening to the performers sing to the live audience and to billions more by telecast. Aylis used needle and thread to repair some of the damage to the yellow dress.

“Does he know I’m here?” Zakiya asked.

“I didn’t tell him!” Aylis replied, sounding excited for some reason.

“Why not?” Zakiya asked. Her own feelings were too mixed to even think about what Aylis was doing to the yellow dress. The ache in her heart for Samson rendered any other feelings as superficial.

“I wanted to surprise him, Zak. Please be still! The only sewing I know is emergency medicine stitching. I last did it about two hundred fifty years ago. Glue would be better.”

“You needn’t bother,” she said, distracted. “The dress is fine the way it is. And I’m not going to any party after Pan is done with the Opera.”

“I know. I just like to make things perfect. And I wanted to say something before Pan finishes and comes and monopolizes your time.”

“We’re friends forever, Aylis, no matter what happens.”

“I know that! It’s the only thing I’m sure of! You’re Zakiya at the root of your being. Always kind and forgiving. I just wanted to say I believe Alex is still alive out there, somewhere.”

“Please, don’t make me hope!” Zakiya protested. She felt guilty just remembering Alex while Samson remained missing. “I remember other times when we all but pronounced them dead. They’ve been gone too long.”

“Hear me out, Zakiya. I’ve had a few more explosions from my lost memories. How old were you when you married Alex? Seventy? And because of the medical advances of the time, you were still biologically young enough to give birth a few years later to Jamie. Life extension treatments were already centuries old. All I did was improve the treatments to make continuity of life practical and affordable for everyone. What remained was the problem of implementing it without causing tremendous social upheaval. That was half the reason I went to sleep and let my inexhaustible mechanical double take on the task.”

“Are you saying that Alex and the others had the benefit of your research?” Zakiya asked, almost irritated that she was being forced to think about Alex. At this great distance from him in time and space it was too easy to make him into a perfect and absolute love: someone forever beyond having in reality.

“I made sure they had everything I could give them to keep them strong and healthy,” Aylis answered. “They wouldn’t let me come with them, but these are four of the most brilliant minds God gave to men. They had to be able to figure it out. Patrick promised me he would make it work.”

“They never believed they would return soon!” Zakiya declared, letting herself feel an instant of hopeless hope. “They were planning on decades of cautious searching. But it’s still been too long, Aylis. They might have had the technology to maintain their youth but there are too many ways to die out there.”

“Still, there’s a chance, Zakiya. You’re data-enhanced by the Navy, but you’re also data-enhanced by me. Our poor brains can only hold so much. But we have our auxiliary memories, as problematic as they are. Maybe we’re unable to retrieve our old memory with the mere will to remember, but it is all there. Therefore, you’ll eventually remember how intelligent and strong and resourceful these men were. They’re still out there. I believe it! And they need our help.”

"There may be a small chance, but -"

“No buts. They’re out there and we will find them!”

“Yes, ma’am!”

“Now, go on and surprise Pan. I want to see the look on his face!”

This was the Mother Earth Opera. Now Zakiya did begin to feel some little excitement for where she now stood. This was a legendary musical production, mainly featuring singers, and occurring once every ten years. She had never once paid any attention to it and even now she was not really impressed with it. It was not as important as Samson. She would greet Pan, happy to know him now as an important part of her past. It was merely and simply interesting to be able to experience the Mother Earth Opera from the wings of its stage.

Zakiya stepped closer to the stage and listened to the last singer. He finished to great applause, showing that his place at the end of the Mother Earth Opera was well-earned. When the singer exited to her side of the stage, she was still applauding as he passed by her. She had heard some of his performance and could now appreciate it through her partly-remembered life as a professional singer.

Pan had accompanied the singer on a traditional piano, where he still sat. He turned to the audience and started to rise, but then turned back toward her. He had seen her! Seeing her, he stopped what he had next intended to do – bring the Mother Earth Opera to a close. Zakiya began to retreat back into the wings, suspecting – and alarmed by – what Pan might do next.

Pan stood up at the piano and gestured for Zakiya to come onto the stage! She pointed to herself as a question and he nodded and waved vigorously for her to join him. Zakiya turned to Aylis who simply shoved her into the stage light. Zakiya frowned at Aylis and saw a pleading look on her friend’s pale face. She took a couple of hesitant steps toward Pan and stopped.

No! She was not going out there! She knew he was going to ask her to sing. She knew he had an inflated opinion of her singing ability, based only on Rafael’s experience of her singing a lullaby. For Samson, she had sung for Samson, not for this uncaring world of pride and celebrity. She was too sad, too pessimistic about Samson’s chances for survival. Yes, she could sing well, or at least the Broken Ones had thought so. But she didn’t feel like singing! But Pan was coming for her, taking her hand, pleading with his eyes, pulling her gently toward the piano. She stumbled forward, trying to hold back. He put an arm around her shoulders and waited for her to say something. “Samson,” was all she said.

“I know,” he said. “I was just hoping. You always loved to sing. The old memories made me do this! Also, Admiral Etrhnk is in the audience, expecting you to do something unbelievable.”

It seemed obscene, to have to think of Etrhnk after thinking of Samson. Also, she felt too strange, and almost naked, imagining herself performing in front of the Navy commander, giving him too much of herself.

In the end, after a long moment trying to balance her emotions, she let Pan lead her to the center of the stage, in front of hundreds in the audience, and in front of billions who would view the event live or by recording. She didn’t know why she acquiesced, unless it was because she had her own fair share of human perversity.

“This is Ruby Reed,” Pan said to the audience, still holding her hand. “Or, this was Ruby Reed, a great but little known blues singer. That was in another life. But she can still sing, and although she is no longer a professional singer, I think she will surprise you. She is a personal friend and has very graciously consented to perform. Please be kind to her.”

Pan sat down at the piano and Fidelity stood behind him, looking anywhere but at Admiral Etrhnk, highly visible in the first row of seats.

“Remember this one, Ruby?” Pan played an informal introduction to the same blues ballad Rafael had made her sing.

She was gratified Pan had chosen the song, because she was confident she could do it well. It also fit her mood. She sang it with extra feeling, always thinking of Rafael and, of course, Samson. It was over before she knew it and people were applauding, even though it was not the kind of song that singers performed on this stage. She was gratified to receive any applause at all.

“Not too bad,” she said softly to Pan.

“It was perfect!” Pan assured her. “Do you want to try something more challenging?”

No!”

He ignored her response and played a few notes of a song she recognized. Despite resisting it, she was transfixed by a memory in which the song appeared in a set of five songs, all of them difficult because they weren’t so beautiful and were technically complex. Five different songs, five different languages, lengthy melodic phrases, wide tonal ranges. She remembered trying to sing them and make them beautiful, but failing, lacking the will and stamina to conquer their cruelty to her sense of aural and emotional aesthetics. Pan was there in the memory, urging her to reach beyond her old limits. It was near the end of their life together, perhaps part of its reason for ending. She had been old and sad and not up to the rigor and precision of the songs, either physically or mentally. It was still impossible for her! She had been rejuvenated more than once since that lifetime. She didn’t even have the scores to follow in her ocular data terminal. Or did she? She did!

“You have the scores in your data augment?” Pan asked. “I can get them for you.”

“Yes. But-”

“You rehearsed them often enough.”

“You do realize what you are asking of me?”

“I’ve found that I can remember much of the cycle myself,” he said. “It’s amazing. Even if you can’t do it perfectly, it will be a treat for them. Old songs that deserve to be heard again.”

She scanned through the measures of the songs, finding that she did remember them extremely well, as though she had, at some point, marked them as special to her, and the Mnro Clinic had found some way to keep them so well preserved. Of course, it was the Mnro Clinics… Then she saw the final song and remembered the nature of it as a concluding statement, and she knew she could not sing it, not while she knew she may have lost Samson and Rafael.

“The last one,” she said to Pan. “I can’t do it. I can’t!”

“I see what you mean,” he said. “No, don’t sing it. I’ll play it without you, because it belongs there. Ready?” Pan began playing a short medley that introduced the song cycle. Then it was time.

She sang. She closed her eyes and sang. She sang!

She hardly thought about how she ought to sing such unforgiving songs. She was grateful to make it through the first one without any technical errors. She was pleased to remember how to segue into the second song and never hesitated. Then she stopped caring how perverse the melodies were, and made them play against themselves and sound better than they were. It was something a blues singer knew by instinct. It became easier for her. She allowed her voice to soar, unafraid. She loved to sing!

Toward the end of the fourth song Pan made an error in his playing, causing Fidelity to turn toward him. In turning, she glimpsed Freddy in the wings and standing next to him was Samson!

She raised her hand toward Samson, falling silent, and trying to unglue her feet to go to him. She started but Pan caught her hand.

“Now you can sing the last one,” he said, playing a sketch of the melody with his free hand. He released her and filled her ears with notes that hinted at the emotion waiting for her voice in the final song of the cycle.

She clasped her hands together and gave Samson every caring feeling she could impart to him from that distance, before her tears took away her sight of him. She wiped her wet cheeks even as she began the quiet lyrics which set up the final song’s progression toward a bittersweet climax of hope and victory.

 

She ran to Samson and gathered him into her arms and squeezed him and kissed him and wept. Never again would she place him in harm’s way! Never again would she withhold the care and affection he needed and deserved!

Aylis and Jon tried to talk to her, Samson was saying something, but Zakiya couldn’t hear them. Applause overwhelmed even their shouts. Then the noise of hands clapping declined, and she would later realize the audience had seen Samson’s injury from images projected for them in the concert hall.

Pan was then able to call and gesture for Zakiya to return to the stage. She started to put Samson down.

“No, take him with you!” Aylis shouted. “Someone may identify him!”

She carried him into the lights, and the applause rose up and buffeted them, until Pan pleaded with hands pressing downward for it to stop.

“Welcome back, Samson!” Pan still needed to speak loudly. “Are you alright?”

Samson nodded his answer but buried his head against Zakiya’s neck, obviously disturbed by the noisy audience.

“Will your throat do one more song?” Pan asked Zakiya, putting his mouth close to her ear. “Maybe that will quiet them.”

For the moment, her throat felt good. “What do you want me to sing?”

Samson spoke into her other ear. “A lot of them died, keeping me safe. Please sing for Olivier and the Broken Ones.”

Zakiya set Samson on the piano bench next to Pan and told Pan the name of the song.

She sang Un Bel Di. A full orchestral recording accompanied her.

One beautiful day her husband would return to her. She would find him.

She would find him.

She would find him!

Feathers and Stripes

 

“You saw him.”

He started. Normally the sound of that pure voice with its strange accent was too expected to bother him, but he was so deeply lost in thought that he had forgot to anticipate her visit.

“Constant,” Etrhnk said simply as greeting, turning to the Golden One.

“Answer my question,” she demanded, but not seriously.

“I saw him.”

“He seemed well?”

“You saw the televised images and could probably judge better than I.”

“We don’t watch current news and entertainment,” Constant said, “but I chanced to notice it in an automated report. Yes, I did view it. You didn’t meet the child after the telecast?”

Etrhnk shook his head. He avoided her eyes.

“What’s wrong?” she asked, concerned. She unsealed the seam of her blouse. Loose as it was, he knew it irritated her body.

“I don’t know,” he answered. He tried not to look at the gold beneath her blouse.

“You attended in person, and I think just to hear her sing.”

“Yes.”

“You quite enjoyed her performance. I know. I saw you applauding. I was jealous.”

“I’m sorry.” He was sorry. He had felt something but his applause was only a customary function, not really connected to what he felt. But he understood Constant desired to have him feel something for her, even if he could not fathom why. He was sorry if she was misled by what she saw him do. Yet, he knew Admiral Demba deserved his applause.

“You wanted to learn something about her,” Constant said with a quiet impatience. “If I know nothing else about you it’s that you’re always curious. She’s a mystery. As is the boy. Am I so less a mystery to you?”

He shook his head, not really answering her question. But, yes, Constant was a great mystery, but of a different kind, an obvious kind: alien. Demba was a mystery of an unknown kind.

Constant discarded her blouse, flinging it to the floor. Then she turned away from him, covering herself with her arms, as if regretting her act of exposure. She seemed less than an immortal, magical, and omnipotent alien creature. She seemed fragile, uncertain of herself, vulnerable. For the first time Etrhnk felt strangely excited by this most beautiful of creatures. For the first time he felt Constant was truly female, and all that implied. What was happening to him that he could feel? He couldn’t afford to feel. But he did. Most troubling of all was how he felt about Admiral Demba. It had been a mistake to listen to her sing. It had changed him.

“I always think you’re hiding delicious personal thoughts from me,” Constant complained. “But never thoughts about me. Would it interest you to know that I was very worried the boy would be hurt or killed?”

Etrhnk shook his head negatively and slowly, which she could not see, facing away from him. “I believe you,” he stated. There was a different quality to her voice, he judged, an increase of some kind of meaning. There were no clues passed down to succeeding Navy Commanders, but Etrhnk thought it probable that such increased familiarity from a Golden One, at this late stage of his career, predicted the nearness of the end of it. Could she be hinting at regret?

Constant turned and touched him, found the seam of his uniform, tugged at it gently while trying to capture his eyes with hers. “It would interest me to know why you didn’t remove Demba from command of the Hub Mission.”

“I’m sure it would,” he replied.

She yanked at his uniform tunic, now angry or impatient. He finally dared look at her and he shivered. The light loved her golden feathers and played upon her human-like surfaces as though alive with capriciousness. “You are delightful to behold.” He was uncomfortable with what he was able to say and amazed that he had said it.

Constant seemed to appreciate his words. She smiled at him and helped him remove the jacket of his uniform, then his undershirt. She looked at his torso before wrapping her arms around it and pressing her feathered cheek against his chest.

“You are also delightful to behold,” she said. “I love your stripes.”

1981CE – Parental Disapproval

 

“You don’t have tenure yet!” Mama lectured me. “Too soon to get married!”

“I’ll probably never get tenure at such a prestigious school, Mama. Anyway, who said anything about getting married?”

“She’s a nice-looking girl,” Papa dared say, and he got a frown from Mama.

“You don’t bring home a girl like that,” Mama said, “crippled and in a wheelchair, if you don’t have big plans for her. That’s a lot of trouble for you unless she means something to you.”

“You’re very perceptive, Mama,” I replied, daring her to say something else so blunt and perceptive. I suppose I couldn’t help how Milly was like an invading enemy to my mother, my mother who had so much invested in her only child. In a way, the wheelchair was an unfair weapon in this battle, because I knew Mama cared about unfortunate people like Milly.

My mother’s frown turned to a big smile as she stepped away to wait on a customer and take his money.

I escaped Mama and walked down the narrow aisles of the old store. I saw and smelled and heard all the sights and scents and sounds of my childhood, growing up in the family business. Papa was putting out a new order of men’s dress hats, brushing them and stacking them in the glass cases. He kept glancing at me and smiling. He was on my side, although I wasn’t sure why. I had already disappointed him twice in my choice of profession. If I was honest with myself, Milly was another choice I had made that would likely not be as perfect as my parents wanted.

Pausing at the front of the store I breathed in the pungent aromas of pipe tobaccos, clove cigarettes, cigars, and the candy rack. Down the first aisle I perused the magazines and paperback books. I picked up a bag of chips from the floor and put it back in its rack as I moved into the grocery section. It looked like everything was still moving off the shelves but I wondered how much longer Mama and Papa could keep it going. I hoped they weren’t really waiting for me to support them in their old age.

“Where did you leave her?” Mama asked, finding me in the refrigerated section, looking at a possible leak under one case.

“She’s at the hotel,” I answered, pointing out the puddle of liquid to Mama. She ignored it.

“Separate rooms?” she asked bluntly.

“Separate beds, Mama. Same room. She needs some help.”

“Why a crippled girl?” Like that was an item on a menu.

“And a white girl and a Catholic girl! I don’t know, Mama! It just happened!”

“There were plenty of nice Korean girls around here. Was she the first white girl to be friendly to you?”

“The very first! I was swept off my feet! When was any girl friendly to me?”

“So, you have to settle for a cripple. OK with me! Just don’t marry her! Lot of trouble. You’ll regret it. How is she gonna give you babies and help you raise them?”

“Lord have mercy, Mama!” I was upset at Mama’s attitude. I never knew she was so prejudiced. I tried to calm down and appreciate her perspective. Also, there was the military situation that Mama would never understand, because I could never tell her about it. Mama was a very smart person but she had never had the opportunity for a good education and a broadening of her horizon.

“Milly is a very independent person,” I argued. “She’s strong and determined. If she wants children, she’ll have them and she’ll do it well. Only her legs are crippled. Her mind is better than mine. She’s a mathematician, a Ph.D. mathematician. She’s amazing. She didn’t want to have anything to do with me when I first met her, but she changed her mind.” Make her think Milly is too good for me.

I took a few steps away from my mother and swiped a soft drink from one of the refrigerated cases. She let me take a couple of swallows before resuming her cross-examination.

“OK, so Milly is amazing and good at math.” She was saying Milly’s name now. That was a good sign. “Is that all you see in her? She has a pretty face, too.”

“As a matter of fact, her math ability is quite important to me, but no, that isn’t all there is. She’s special, Mama, very special. When I’m with her, my heart races and my brain explodes with ideas. Without her, I can only see myself in the future as an old man of no significant accomplishment, teaching at a small college. With her…” I couldn’t tell Mama what Milly and I had already accomplished as a team. It was classified by the military.

“She’s special,” Mama conceded. “Special as in smart. Good. But she doesn’t have to marry you, does she?”

“It would be convenient.” I immediately regretted those words. Mama opened her mouth to pounce on the mistake and I cut her off. “Damn it, I love her, Mama! I’m crazy about her!”

“OK, then!”

Mama had to go back to the cash register. I drank half the cola too fast and belched. I looked over at Papa, who had positioned himself to observe Mama and me down the aisle. He gave me a thumbs-up. I walked down the aisle toward him and leaned on the counter. He stuck a wool walking hat on my head, cocking it to one side. I put my glasses on the counter and picked up the cola to finish it.

“Something wrong with your glasses?” Papa inquired.

I swallowed wrong and had a coughing fit, nearly losing the hat. Papa leaned over and pounded me on the back. Mama came back to us and we waited for her next pronouncement, which was: “So, you bringing Milly to supper tonight, or what?”

= = =

Supper went pretty well, except Mama was unusually quiet. She stole a lot of glances at Milly. Papa enjoyed talking to Milly. He’d been a secondary school teacher back in Korea and he asked Milly how she had beaten the odds to become a female mathematician. It had something to do with card games, especially poker, which led quickly to the subject of her father, Colonel A. J. DuPont, veteran of World War Two and Korea, and from then on I was just a listener. Papa had also been a soldier in Korea before the War. Milly talked a lot about her parents. She also asked many questions about my parents and what their lives were like before they came to America. She seemed genuinely interested and I think she impressed Mama, and no doubt Papa.

Just as we were about to leave for the hotel, Milly saw the old piano that was partially hidden behind some boxes in the cramped little apartment. It was my old upright practice piano. They still had it, despite the space it wasted.

“I’ve never heard Sam play,” Milly said, and turned to me in silent request.

We uncovered the piano and Mama dusted it off. I pulled out the bench, sat down, and opened the keyboard cover. I did a backhanded sweep up and down the keys and shook my head at what I heard. Then I hit all eighty-eight keys, playing the chromatic scale, and paused at each of three bad keys that had completely lost their tones. I couldn’t play it.

= = =

I just wished Dad would be nice. Nice is not his thing. Not that he’s unreasonable. He has no tolerance for fools. I anguished over what to do to prepare him for Sam and kept putting it off until it came down to just showing up on my parents’ doorstep nearly unannounced, with Sam rolling me into the house and Dad squinting at him and looking back out the door to see where his taxi was. It was a rental car and Sam was not a taxi driver.

“Mom, Dad, this is Samuel Lee, Doctor Samuel Lee.” I was going to add, the man I’m going to marry, but lost my courage.

While my parents gaped and pondered the meaning of Sam’s presence, I rolled in and saw all the mess scattered everywhere. As it turned out, they were packing up to leave for a new home in Florida and retirement near a military base and a VA hospital. It was about time! Dad had been in the Army forever.

I turned around to watch the Old Man, and Mom watched him with me. We all knew the meaning of Sam’s presence. I had warned Sam about the colonel. Dad pulled out his unlit cigar – Mom wouldn’t let him light one in the house – and stuck out his big hand for Sam to take. He then crushed Sam’s hand and smiled doing it, stuck the cigar back in his mouth, hooked his thumbs in the waistband of his khaki shorts, and put that look on his face that said: boy, are you in the wrong house!”

Sam shook the pain out of his hand and lied by saying, “Pleased to meet you, Colonel.”

I was ready to get up out of my wheelchair and shove that cigar down Dad’s throat.

“We’re getting married!” I announced. “Just so we all know what we all know!”

Mom took Sam’s hand in both of hers and smiled warmly at him. “This is so sudden! Are you Chinese?”

Mom is a real sweetheart and a little on the petite side. She always waits until Dad isn’t looking, before she hits him.

“Korean,” Sam said.

“Hmm,” Dad said. “What kind of doctor?”

“Astronomer.”

“I was about to ask about this pain,” Dad said, pointing at his liver. “What does stargazing pay these days?”

Well, enough of this crap. Let’s look in on the Father-Daughter Bout, a little later in the day, Heavyweight Division, round twelve.

= = =

“He’s the first guy who made eyes at you after you got out of the hospital, ain’t he?” Dad asked. I had his wet cigar in my hand, after he leaned a little too close. I wasn’t about to let him wiggle it between his lips the whole dialog.

“Damn right! I’m one-for-one. I was hot-to-trot and he was the best I could do.”

He waved his hand in dismissal. “Let’s get serious, shall we? Say, did you get contacts? Where are your glasses? You look pretty good without them.”

“Lost ‘em in a game of strip poker.”

“I know you’re lying because you never lose at poker. Where was I?”

“Something about being serious.”

“Oh, yeah. Are you really serious about this Korean?”

“He’s an American, Dad, born here, raised here. His parents are the nicest people.”

“You gonna live with his parents?”

“No, we’re gonna live with you!”

“OK, let’s get serious.”

“You said that before. Don’t make any stupid comments about Sam!”

“If you had any feeling in your butt I’d give you a good spanking, young lady.”

I laughed. It was always this way with Dad. I think it was his way of showing affection – being gruff and slightly cuckoo.

“So, when’s the wedding, Punkin?”

Now we were getting somewhere. When the name Punkin came out, I imagined I was finally softening him up. He needed a shave. Retired from the Army for only a couple of months and already he was going to seed. Couldn’t even keep his gig-line straight.

“The Air Force has a job for Sam and me that starts in September. If you look out that window you’ll see a car with a couple of suits in it. Karl and Ed. They’re armed and they’re making sure Sam and I are safe.”

Dad raised an eyebrow then looked through the window of his study. “Astronomy must be trickier than I thought! Will they let you come to Florida to get married?”

1981CE – A Convenient Marriage

 

“I know, I know, Mamacita, but we’re talking about my little girl here, my youngest, my best, but don’t tell that to Will and Carla. And especially not to Milly!”

“They already know your feelings for Milly,” Lucia DuPont said to her husband Tony. She inspected his wedding attire. She fussed with the carnation that wouldn’t fit right in his lapel.

He took off the black jacket and handed it to her. It was too early to have it on. He was too hot. “Just sneak around and find Sam and ask him to come see me. Don’t let it get back to Milly that I’m talking to him in private. Hurry it up, Luscious. I gotta talk to Milly, too. In private.”

Lucia laid the jacket on the bed carefully. She did not hurry. She was a very patient woman, or else she would be spending her remaining years with someone other than her husband, preferably with a Chihuahua. “Don’t you think you have talked to Sam enough? You’re trying to make him say the wrong thing, so you can call off the wedding.”

“Are you kidding, after what it’s already cost us?” He sat down on the bed next to his jacket. He checked his watch. “He’s a good kid. His folks are real good people; he has to be a nice boy. I just don’t know if he has what it takes. You know, Milly is a lot like me: hard to deal with. I have a few more words of wisdom to say to him.”

“You mean warnings.”

“I want her to be happy, and if Sam is well prepared, he might succeed in making her happy.”

“She seems h